Hamburg and Wilsonville

July 13, 2017

As the president debated environmental and economic concerns with G-20 worthies in Hamburg last week, his cabinet officers were discussing them with locals here at home. “America first,” a serviceable description of the administration’s message, predictably played better here than over there.

Energy Secretary Perry pitched advanced coal technologies at a visit to the Longview Power Plant near Morgantown, W.Va. Washington’s wags derided Perry’s flip comment about supply and demand for coal. Once again, they missed the bigger point being made. “All energy sources are important for America,” the secretary told Metro News, “but picking and choosing a few that fit your political agenda is not good for America.”

That blunt reference was to the last eight years when environmental regulators decided which energy sources to use and which jobs to keep. The Mercury and Air Toxics rule, the Clean Power Plan and related rules on power plants rested on reimagined authority to satisfy political interests who bore none of the costs of energy transformation. Those costs include the retirement of 451 coal units in 37 states, representing 75,000 MW of generating capacity – all attributed in SEC filings to regulatory actions. When the power plants fell so did the wellbeing of coal communities that serviced them.

“Those days are over,” said the secretary.

So, if Secretary Perry missed the nuance of Says Law he understood a more fundamental point. “The men and women whose jobs are connected directly to this plant, don’t ever forget them,” he said.  Once upon a time it was progressive-thinking administrations and pundits who made this plea on behalf of working people. Those days are over too.

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Pruitt was taking the America first message to Wilsonville, Alabama. At Plant Gaston, he told employees why the Clean Power Plan doesn’t work for the U.S., however popular it may be in Hamburg. “It’s not EPA’s job to tell Americans ‘don’t touch that, don’t use that’,” he told his radio host. “We ought not to reimagine authority to pick winners and losers.” Rather, EPA is getting back to basics, staying in its lane, he said, keeping air and water clean “within the statutes that Congress passes.”

This administration’s message plays poorly inside the Beltway where many see their self interest in helping government pick winners and losers. Taking decisions out of the hands of the private sector and putting them in the hands of regulators is how Washington feeds itself. Global decarbonization, with its reliance on centralized authority and global ambition, is ideal for the Beltway, less so for many Americans.

The demise of the Clean Power Plan suggests most States as well as the courts appear to agree with Messrs. Perry and Pruitt that Washington’s regulators lack the authority, and possibly the competence, to make far-reaching decisions

A majority of voting Americans, in some very important states, may agree too.