Yes, President Donald Trump throws a lot of punches via his ever-present Twitter account.
But he’s landed some good jabs lately against critics of America’s coal industry. And while some argue the president is raising expectations too high, no one really expects him to return coal to its glory days, at least not anytime soon.
Instead, the Trump administration is prudently aiming to make coal a viable industry again — which is a good thing for high-wage employment and for maintaining a diverse supply of affordable energy for households and businesses.
In just over two months in office, Trump, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have systematically dismantled the elaborate regulatory juggernaut that Team Obama used to beat coal down.
This isn’t about granting favors, it’s about fairness.
First, Congress and the president moved against a massive stream rule allowing the Office of Surface Mining to both muscle in on state mining oversight and duplicate EPA authority over water quality standards. Essentially, OSM created an expanded role for itself even as the number of U.S. mines has dwindled.
Significantly, this stream rule imposed hefty new costs even though U.S. mining operations are now virtually free of off-site impacts, according to OSM’s own annual evaluations from the states.
But the rule’s redundancy would have rendered more than half of the nation’s coal reserves uneconomical to mine, putting a third of America’s remaining coal jobs at risk. Trump was right to sign a resolution voiding the rule.
Second, with Administrator Pruitt in place, environmental activists no longer enjoy walk-in privileges to write the sort of climate change regulations that ignore costs while targeting coal jobs. The president has pledged to void the Clean Power Plan and review the Obama administration’s commitment to the U.N. Paris conference.
The CPP alone could have cost 126,000 jobs throughout the mining, power plant and railroad sectors, while raising wholesale electricity prices by $214 billion over the next 15 years. Taxpayers would also have been stuck with a $64 billion bill to replace transmission infrastructure lost due to the closure of more coal plants.
The president hasn’t stopped there, though. He’s also taken a hard look at the EPA’s Waters of the United States rule (WOTUS), which he described as “horrible, horrible.” It’s an apt summary of the EPA’s once voracious appetite for regulatory power over the economy and private property.
With WOTUS, the Obama EPA was able to reclassify a rainwater ditch as “navigable waters,” inviting a host of new restrictions on everything from farming to home building. Thankfully, the president understands that requiring EPA permits for prairie potholes does nothing to improve water quality.
The president has also helped the coal industry get back on its feet by lifting the moratorium on new federal coal leases ordered by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Even though the annual coal output of the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming is only 4.7 percent of global production, the Obama administration wanted to sacrifice it to please climate activists who claimed the federal coal program isn’t profitable enough. That strains credulity, though, since the government earns almost 40 cents of every dollar generated from federal coal lease sales.
Zinke has suggested he would review the federal leasing program. But in the interim, the administration lifted the current ban on new federal leases and thus removed the dark cloud hanging over a mining region that produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal.
Overall, it’s unclear what the Trump administration plans to do about the EPA’s presumed authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
But the new EPA management likely has a more restrained view of its power under the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 emissions. And that could affect U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord.
Regardless, what’s welcome is the possibility that Washington is now less likely to destroy an industry that still generates a third of the nation’s power.
And more likely to balance the costs we all pay with the benefits we all want.
Luke Popovich is vice president for external affairs at the National Mining Association.
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