Trump’s new coal policy is dangerous
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The Trump administration announced a new energy policy last week that would gut critical regulations on coal-fired plants. The Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule, as its called, would take power plant emissions standards out of federal hands and put it in the hands of individual states to develop their own plans to cut pollution. This ultimately means less regulation for coal plants and deadly consequences to the families who live close by. The EPA predicts as many as 1,500 additional premature deaths annually by 2030 due to heart and lung disease caused by the higher levels of dangerous air pollutants. The ACE Rule is not only deadly, it makes little economic sense.

Over the past few years, a growing chorus of analysts, pundits, and global heads of finance have been declaring the death of American coal. Since 2010, more than 250 American coal-fired power plants have been retired due to dwindling economic viability. That’s nearly 40 percent of the nation’s fleet that has either been shut down or designated for closure. “It’s pure economics,” said Richard Glick, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in an interview where he highlighted the growing cost-efficiency of renewable energy.

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Thankfully, economics and saving the planet go hand-in-glove when it comes to coal. Coal is the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. In 2015, coal combustion represented 45 percent of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

We need a rapid phase-out of coal and we can’t afford to backslide on progress we’ve made toward that goal. The proof is in the smoke that darkens the California sky, the hurricanes that rage across the Gulf of Mexico, killer heatwaves in Canada and Japan, and the innumerable families across the world displaced by climate chaos.

But flying in the face of basic economics, and a common sense concern for our climate and for public health, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpActivists highlight Trump ties to foreign autocrats in hotel light display Jose Canseco pitches Trump for chief of staff: ‘Worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday’ Dershowitz: Mueller's report will contain 'sins' but no 'impeachable offense' MORE has made it his personal crusade to resurrect American coal. On June 1, Trump ordered his Department of Energy to come up with a plan to stop coal plants from closing. This heavy-handed move could involve using emergency powers that are normally reserved for major crises like natural disasters or war-time shortages to force grid operators to buy power from flailing plants. (The invoking of “natural” disasters is highly ironic given that the term is used to describe the recent killer floods, fires and heat waves that scientists say are very likely to be the result of coal-accelerated climate change).

Fortunately this effort to bail out coal-burning utilities is so inept and nonsensical that it has united in opposition to it conservative regulators and lawmakers, the oil and gas industry, and environmentalists, and it is unlikely to survive legal challenges. Yet while Trump may be typically floundering to come up with even a half-baked policy to achieve his goals, data show that the long-term decline in U.S. coal production was reversed slightly in 2017 (mainly because of increased exports) and the trend is predicted to stay basically flat over the next couple of years.

This stalling of the coal industry’s decline is being enabled by Wall Street. A new report reveals that America’s biggest banks are right in step with Trump’s pro-coal agenda. The six major U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo – all increased financing for coal following Trump’s inauguration. In 2017 banks increasing overall financing between 16 percent (Citi) and an incredible 3,014 percent (JPMorgan Chase) compared to 2016.

This news is especially disappointing given that all but one of these banks committed to reduce credit exposure to the coal mining industry in response to the Paris Agreement (the exception is Goldman Sachs, which has a narrower coal policy).

The report shows that while the five banks with exposure reduction commitments are in compliance with the letter of their policies, the policies are so narrowly drafted that they have allowed huge increases in overall bank support for coal. A key reason is that policies on credit exposure restrict only certain types of loans, and leave out underwriting all together – thus only applying to just over half of the banks’ total financing to the industry. Of the five banks with exposure-reduction commitments, Bank of America, Citi and JPMorgan Chase limit that commitment to pure-play coal companies, which represent just half of production.

Another loophole in the credit exposure commitments, is that they allow the banks to continue providing new financing to the coal industry – and even significantly increase this financing – so long as enough old loans come off the books at the same time.

To ensure that a global coal phase-out is as rapid as the climate science demands, we need banks to act responsibly and adopt policies that ensure sharp declines in all bank support for the coal industry. Commitments to simply reduce credit exposure with glaring loopholes clearly don’t cut it. Instead, banks should pledge year-on-year reductions of their overall financing, including all types of loans and underwriting services for all coal mining companies, with a declared zero date. Banks have to do more, not less, because of Trump.

BNP Paribas, France’s largest bank and the owner of Bank of the West, is one of a number of European banks with strong policies restricting funding to coal mining and power companies. BNP excludes financing for any coal mining companies that lack a strategy to diversity away from coal. On top of the bank’s commitments on coal, last year BNP released a sweeping announcement to cut back funding for tar sands, Arctic oil and fracked gas. The U.S. banks must follow BNP Paribas’ lead.

How many more deadly and devastating wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and floods does it take for our major banks to do what is truly necessary, and not just what gives them a veneer of environmental concern? Only a commitment to a rapid phase-out of all support for dirty energy will convince the public that the banks actually believe in their own claims to environmental and social responsibility.

Patrick McCully is Climate & Energy Program Director at Rainforest Action Network.