Trump keeps selling the false ‘environment vs. economy’ line

Trump keeps selling the false ‘environment vs. economy’ line
© Getty

The economy versus the environment. It’s a false framing that’s been used for decades to oppose environmental protections. Never mind that we’ve cut air pollutant emissions 73 percent since 1970 while the economy continues to grow.

What’s new under the Trump administration and Republican Congress is a warping of the “economy vs. environment” framing to new levels of distortion. In policy after policy, Republicans haven’t merely pitted profits against environmental protection. Instead, they’ve favored the biggest polluters against their more moderately polluting peers. That means we can expect little economic benefit from the damage to our environment and health.

For the coal industry, Republicans sought to block a stream protection rule, defund the clean-up of abandoned mines, and weaken mine safety rules. All of this puts the more responsible coal mining companies at a disadvantage against their dirtier competitors. Coal mining deaths doubled last year, while policies put profits ahead of the well-being of coal miners and their communities.


In electricity markets, Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryTomorrow's special election in Texas is the Democrats' best House hope in 2021 Overnight Energy: Michigan reps reintroduce measure for national 'forever chemicals' standard |  White House says gas tax won't be part of infrastructure bill Trump alumni launch America First Policy Institute MORE sought to subsidize power plants that keep 90 days of coal on site. But a recent study by Rhodium found that the size of fuel supply has been virtually irrelevant to power outages in recent years. A 90-day pile of coal does nothing to keep the lights on when a hurricane makes it too wet to use, a polar vortex freezes it, or a drought dries up the cooling water needed to burn it.

Piling up so much coal isn’t just useless, it’s harmful. Coal emits pollutants as it decays, and wind-blown coal dust pollutes neighboring communities. And maintaining a coal pile isn’t free. That’s why a third of coal plants keep less than a 60-day supply on hand. Subsidizing uncompetitive coal plants would merely slow their inevitable closures and delay construction of cleaner gas and renewable facilities. Fortunately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected Perry’s proposal this week.

The oil industry is seeing the folly of anti-environment policies too. Everyone from congressional Republicans to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has tried to repeal rules on methane leaks from oil and gas drilling. Leaking methane means wasting a valuable product that’s a potent greenhouse gas.

That’s why ExxonMobil, Shell, and six of the other oil and gas majors pledged in November to curb their leaks voluntarily. Gutting federal rules puts these companies at a disadvantage against less responsible companies, and tarnishes efforts to portray natural gas as a clean resource.

ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips were among the dozens of companies that vocalized support for staying in the Paris Climate Agreement. To meet the Paris goals, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and Total have joined the Climate Leadership Council in advocating for a gradually rising carbon tax. Meanwhile, many utility companies want EPA to keep the Clean Power Plan.

In each case, energy companies are demonstrating that they prefer clear and stable policies when making multi-billion dollar investment decisions, even if those policies impose some costs. That leaves Republicans far to the right of the fossil industry they claim to support.

For all this bashing of the environment, one would at least hope that windfall profits are being made. But as these examples show, the battles have been less about “economy vs. environment” than favoring irresponsible polluters over everyone else.

Ironically, the victors shouldn’t be in a position to wield such lobbying clout. The 10 largest coal companies combined have a market capitalization just a 10th as large as ExxonMobil alone. They also provide a tiny number of jobs compared to wind, solar, and natural gas. That coal interests hold sway over cleaner competitors cannot be explained as a simple preference for economy and jobs over the environment.

In this new Gilded Age of virtually limitless political contributions, it’s unsurprising to see politicians beholden to corporate funders. Yet, ideological fervor has distorted policy even beyond the best interests of many in the fossil industry. As policies warp from pro-economy to anti-environment, few will gain while our environment and health pay the price.

Daniel Cohan is associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.