Rolling back climate regulations will hurt low income and disadvantaged communities
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Tuesday, flanked by a group of coal miners, President Trump signed an executive order to dismantle President Obama’s climate initiatives. The support of the coal industry was won with the misleading promise that coal mining jobs would return — a fallacy that even the coal CEO and Trump supporter Robert Murray does not believe is true.

Unfavorable market conditions have largely been responsible for the decline in coal use. Rolling back these environmental regulations is a regrettable attempt to prop up a dying industry while diverting potential investment away from renewable resources whose deployment would promise greater economic and job gains as well as widespread human health and climate benefits.

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Coal generation has fallen dramatically in recent years, from 42 percent of power generation in 2011 to 30 percent in 2016, when for the first time the U.S. generated more electricity from natural gas. Investors are nervous about the coal industry’s future, and market capitalization of coal producers has fallen by over 90 percent since 2011.

 

The California Insurance Commissioner has gone so far as to ask all insurance companies operating in California to divest from coal due to the financial risk of these investments. Coal generation was first undermined by cheap natural gas following the shale gas boom, and has been increasingly threatened by plummeting prices from renewables.

Unlike coal, renewable energy investments are booming. Wind and solar resources made up more than 60 percent of all new generation capacity added in 2016. By 2015, average power purchase agreements for wind had dropped to an incredible 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, and solar energy had fallen to 3-5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Trump’s executive order rolls back the moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, begins the process of dismantling Obama’s Clean Power Plan before it has even started, and rescinds additional orders related to climate change and clean energy.

Due to the built procedures for issuing federal regulations, rescinding the Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants, might take years. However, because it has not yet come into effect, rescinding the rule would have little impact on reversing historic coal job losses.

Even if coal development expands on federal lands due to the coal lease decision, many mining jobs are becoming automated. Other regulations enacted under Obama’s tenure, including the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, have also been successful in intensifying the economic pressure on coal by forcing many old coal plants to add scrubbers or go offline, and many have retired. In spite of Trump’s executive order, those retired coal plants and associated jobs will not return.

The intended effects of Obama’s suite of climate efforts, including an acceleration of coal plant retirements and growth of renewables, would have widespread benefits for human health and the environment.

A set of studies we did last year found that pollutant emissions in 2015 alone from coal plants in Pennsylvania were responsible for thousands of premature deaths as well as asthma attacks and other health impacts across the state and the entire Northeast. F

Furthermore, the majority of these plants were located in low income and disadvantaged communities. Many operators disposed of their toxic coal ash in unlined pits nearby, posing a hazard to groundwater. Regulations to cut carbon emissions from U.S. coal plants have the potential not only to benefit the climate, but also to improve air quality and human health across broad regions. Simultaneously, reducing coal use will reducing disproportionate environmental health burdens on those living near coal plants.

Renewables are both better for public health and the climate and better for job creation. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that only 160,000 people were employed in coal mining and coal electricity generation in 2016, as compared to 475,000 people employed by wind and solar, even though these renewable resources make up a much smaller fraction of our total electricity supply.

Recent research from UC Berkeley has shown that California regulations to cut carbon and promote both efficiency and renewables had minimal impact on oil production jobs but spurred significant economic and job growth in the oil-producing San Joaquin Valley. Nevertheless, in other regions the job concerns of coal workers are very real. States like Kentucky and West Virginia are particularly hard hit.

The jobs lost in the coal industry are not necessarily in the same region nor do they utilize the same skills as those in the renewable energy industry. Rather than trying to return coal miners to the mines, this Administration should instead launch an effort to retrain workers in these areas to develop skills for renewable energy industry jobs, including solar installations, efficiency retrofits, and deployment of other clean energy resources with significant growth potential.

The President could both protect the environment and build on this job training effort by directing some of his promised trillion-dollar infrastructure investments towards clean energy infrastructure. These investments could include everything from building transmission lines to connect wind from the Midwest to coastal cities to designing new public transit infrastructure to reduce our reliance on oil.

Not only would these additional efforts create jobs and reduce pollutant emissions from fossil fuel infrastructure, but they would also help enhance energy independence and energy security, another set of priorities the President emphasized on Tuesday. Such efforts would also help reassure the global community that the U.S. will strive to meet its international climate agreements.

Rolling back climate regulations to bring back coal jobs is misdirected. The President should listen to Murray: coal jobs aren’t coming back. Continued support of the renewable energy industry instead – including job training and infrastructure investments — promises to benefit human health, mitigate climate change, provide energy security, and deliver on some of those jobs Trump has promised.

Elena Krieger, PhD, is the Director of the Clean Energy Program at PSE Healthy Energy, a California-based scientific research institute focused on the adoption of evidence-based energy policy. 


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