Speaking at an event in Hazard County, Kentucky earlier this week, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt announced he will move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s landmark climate rule that limits greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
A 43-page draft of the proposal was obtained by several news outlets, and it argues that the agency overstepped its legal authority by trying to force utilities to reduce carbon emissions to meet federal emissions targets. It offers no alternative to the plan, despite the fact that industry groups have asked for some sort of less-stringent rule rather than just a repeal. Pruitt said this week that he would seek inputfrom the fossil fuel industry when crafting a new rule.
Often times when this administration announces one of its environmental regulation rollbacks (there have been 52 so far, The New York Times estimates), Pruitt or President Trump make a show of it on a stage in a place like West Virginia or Kentucky, in front of dedicated supporters. Trump puts on a hard hat or pretends to dig for coal; Pruitt spouts misleading information about climate science and what certain rules require or how they’re impacting jobs and local economies. Perry County, where Hazard is located, is deep in Kentucky coal country and is tied to the region’s mining industry. Though coal production has drastically declined, Perry County still ranks second in coal production in the state, producing just under a million tons and employing 667 people.
Yet despite what we hear, people in coal-dominated regions are becoming more aware of the realities of a changing climate and a diversifying energy industry. According to Yale’s climate opinions data, 67 percent of people in Perry County support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant; over half support limiting emissions from existing coal-fired power plants; 76 percent support funding research into renewable energy. According to NPR, a coal executive in West Virginia said his industry will likely never get back all the jobs it’s lost. Instead, he said he is banking on other manufacturing industries to take its place ― and he’s relying on the president to make that happen.
With his many unfulfilled promises to supporters, the infighting among cabinet members, and the ongoing scandals, Trump’s popularity is waning in rural America: according to a recent Reuters poll, 47 percent of people in non-metro areas approved of Trump while 47 percent disapproved. That’s much different than when he first took office: 55 percent said they approved of the president and 39 percent disapproved. This is not to say there aren’t still many people, from West Virginia to Wyoming, fighting tooth and nail to bring back the coal industry. But there are significant shifts occurring.
Rescinding the Clean Power Plan may slow the coal industry’s demise, but it certainly won’t stop it. There will not be another coal boom, as coal is rapidly losing market share to increasing competition from natural gas, wind, and solar. According to a recent Union of Concerned Scientists analysis, 51 gigawatts of coal-fired generating capacity is slated to retire or convert to another fuel (primarily natural gas) through 2030. Twenty percent of the coal capacity that was operating at the end of 2016 is uneconomic compared to existing natural gas. Many of those uneconomic coal facilities are in the Southeast.
Twenty-five states are likely to meet their Clean Power Plan targets, including Louisiana, Virginia, and Florida. And, though many of them were involved in suing the Obama administration over the Clean Power Plan, 10 others ― including almost every Southern state except Alabama and West Virginia ― could hit their targets if natural gas stays cheap and the cost of wind and solar continues to drop.
There’s also a grassroots effort to switch to cleaner energy. Earlier this year, the Kentucky Coal Mining museum in Harlan County announced it would be installing rooftop solar. This past spring, a school in Letcher County switched to solar; Campton Baptist Church in Wolfe County became one of the first churches nationwide to switch to solar. A coal company is partnering with renewable energy developers to build a solar farm on a former mountaintop removal site. A company in West Virginia called Solar Holler is training young people to be solar installers rather than miners, and educating communities on the economics of rooftop solar. In my own reporting, I’ve found conservative small town mayors from all over the South who are becoming evangelists for energy efficiency and emission reduction programs.
There is a tried and true narrative of reluctance in this region ― a narrative that is pushed incessantly by the Republican administration ― but most people seem to grasp the truth. Acceptance, on the other hand, is happening more slowly; it requires patience, nuance, and time. Along with confronting their legacies, cultures, and longstanding economies, these communities are up against public servants who repeatedly confirm their worst fears and promise to protect them from things they cannot control.
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