Dark Vision:

  • 04/13/2017
  • Paul Rosenberg

Trump’s Environmental Attacks Imperil the Planet

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum is going solar.

By embracing the future of renewable energy, the museum, owned by Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, represents the antithesis of Donald Trump’s malicious attack on the environment — epitomized by, but hardly limited to, his promise to bring back coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

This is why Trump recently ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to eviscerate the Clean Power Plan, which would reduce carbon emissions from power plants by almost one-third by 2030.

Coal is responsible for so much damage that a 2009 study of local mortality rates (“Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions”) found “The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits.” A broader 2011 study (“Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal”) found that “the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public one third to more than one-half of a trillion dollars annually … [which] conservatively doubles to triples the [real] price of electricity from coal.”

The Coal Mining Museum with its new solar modules is a bridge connecting the past and the future where Trump would build a wall, trapping all of us on the wrong side of tomorrow.

“We believe that this project will help save at least eight to 10 thousand dollars off the energy costs on this building alone, so it’s a very worthy effort,” Communications Director Brandon Robinson told local station WYMT earlier this month.

That practical assessment reflects just how removed Trump is from reality. If he really wants to create “jobs, jobs, jobs,” then he ought to be increasing support for solar energy, which is already creating jobs 12 times faster than the economy as a whole.

The museum is a site for learning about history and culture, as well as technology. It’s in the former coal camp town of Benham, in Harlan County, Ky., made famous by the union organizing anthem, Which Side Are You On? The song was written in the middle of the night back in 1931 by Florence Reece, after company thugs raided her house, searching for her union organizer husband, who had fled.

In contrast, Trump’s closest actual connection to the museum comes through his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who shut down six union mines taken over in a bankruptcy proceeding in 2004. The proceeding voided $800 million in health insurance benefits owed to more than 3,000 active and retired United Mine Workers of America union members. That’s which side he’s on.

Trump tries to pretend otherwise.  He says he’s on the miners’ side. But Robert Murray, owner of the largest privately held coal-mining company in the United States, knows better. He was quite pleased with the prospect of Trump reviving the coal industry, beginning with scrapping Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, also known as CPP, designed to cut the power sector’s carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030. But helping his own business and bringing back mining jobs are two completely different things.

“I suggested that he temper his expectations,” Murray told the Guardian, after meeting with Trump in March. “Those are my exact words…. He can’t bring them back.”

In contrast, sustainability jobs — energy efficiency, renewable energy, waste reduction, natural resources conservation and environmental education — now represent an estimated 4 to 4.5 million jobs in the United States, up from 3.4 million in 2011, according to a January report from the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Average wages for energy efficiency jobs are almost $5,000 above the national median, and wages for solar workers are above the national median of $17.04 per hour,” the report states.

Trump’s Rearview Future vs. a Just Transition

Trump is promising Appalachian coal miners—and those who identify with them — a rearview-mirror future that has three strikes against it: Coal-mining today is far less labor-intensive than before; natural gas is making it uncompetitive now; and renewables will make it even more so as their growth accelerates.

Strike one: Productivity more than tripled from 1980 to 2015, while employment plummeted by more than half from 1980 [242,000] to 2000 [102,000]. It has fluctuated ever since. Wyoming — an open pit mining state — now produces roughly three times as much coal as West Virginia, with far fewer mine workers.

Strike two: In 2000, coal accounted for three times as much energy generation as natural gas: 51.7 to 15.8 percent for natural gas. Last year, natural gas pulled ahead for the first time, 34 to 30 percent.

Strike three: As Bloomberg News explained: “The cost of solar power has fallen to 1/150th of its level in the 1970s, while the total amount of installed solar has soared 115,000-fold.”

The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum is just one drop in an ocean of examples.

Ye’r out: SNL Financial reported in June 2015: “The market value of publicly traded U.S. coal companies was sliced nearly in half over the past year,” and that “more than three dozen coal operations have been forced into bankruptcy in just over three years.”

If all of the above means that Trump’s promises ring hollow, it doesn’t mean there’s no future for those he’s led astray. It just means they’ll have to look elsewhere — and strike new alliances — to fight for it.

An article in the American Prospect this past summer — “A Just Transition for U.S. Fossil Fuel Industry Workers” written by Robert Pollin and Brian Callaci — points the way, building on a concept first articulated by the late Tony Mazzocchi, a prominent leader within the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union:

The global climate stabilization project must unequivocally commit to providing generous transitional support for workers and communities tied to the fossil fuel industry. The late U.S. labor leader and environmental visionary Tony Mazzocchi pioneered thinking on what is now termed a “Just Transition” for these workers and communities. As Mazzocchi wrote as early as 1993, ‘Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis … in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.’

This would require a mere one percent of the annual $50 billion needed for a successful climate stabilization program, Pollin and Callaci explain. “[T]his level of funding would pay for income, retraining, and relocation support for workers facing retrenchments as well as effective transition programs for what are now fossil fuel–dependent communities.”

A just transition for coal miners and other fossil fuel workers is just one of at least four significant facets of climate justice. The other three are: First, the climate dimension within the larger framework of environmental justice, the fair treatment and meaningful participation of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income in shaping environmental laws, policies and decisions; second, the just pricing of greenhouse gases, within the larger framework of just pricing for the social costs of environmental harms (Trump has ordered resetting the government’s estimate of such costs to an outdated 2003 standard); and third, intergenerational justice, so that future generations are left with a world at least as beneficial for their welfare as the one that we have inherited.

Trump’s game — on climate issues and the environment generally, as on everything else — has been to stir up anger and resentment, point fingers, lay blame, promise simple, painless solutions, and claim that he alone can fix things. But if it’s really so simple, why is he the only one who can do it? And why don’t the numbers add up? Why is he so eager to say “You’re fired!” to a quarter of the EPA workforce — thousands of people who’ve devoted their lives to protecting the environment and the American people — and to roll back the protective regulations they’ve enforced?

Trump’s Early Actions Set the Tone

Trump’s actions and proposals are so damaging on so many fronts, it’s almost impossible to grasp, but a few examples from his first days in office set the tone.

On Day 1, Jan. 20, Trump’s White House issued a memorandum enforcing a regulatory freeze, regulations Trump routinely blamed for harming the economy. But four Department of Energy regulations put on hold that day were energy efficiency standards, approved under a law projected to save consumers enormous sums — $1 trillion by 2020 and $2 trillion by 2030 — Michael Wall, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Random Lengths.

“That’s an extraordinary record that shows that good environmental policy is good for the pocketbook as well,” Wall said. “And I don’t think that would’ve been achieved under this president’s apparent policies.”

Also held up were 30 completed EPA regulations, whose implementation dates were delayed, plus a rule regulating mercury discharges into our waters, which had been signed and sent to the Federal Register but never actually printed. The Natural Resources Defense Council is now suing to have it enforced.

That was just on Day 1. On Day 4, Trump issued two memoranda to expedite the approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, directing action to be taken recklessly fast. (Two months later, following Trump’s instruction to act within 60 days, the State Department issued a permit authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline.)

On Day 10, Trump issued an executive order instructing agencies to identify two regulations to repeal for every new one and to ensure that the total incremental cost of all new regulations is no greater than zero.

The absurdity of the two-for-one rule was obvious.

“Just because we discovered that asbestos is unhealthy, doesn’t mean that suddenly mercury and lead were healthy,” Wall pointed out. “The reason we promulgate these rules is to protect people, protect communities, protect families, to protect workers…. We promulgate these rules because the benefits outweigh those costs. Congress has enacted statutes that require rules to protect people in these situations.”

The order just assumes that rolling back regulations is good.

“But there’s nothing to support that,” Wall said. “It’s certainly not lawful; they can’t rollback rules just because they want fewer rules. They have to comply with the underlying statutes. And, none of the underlying statutes allow an agency to decide to repeal two rules just to get an additional one rule. That’s not lawful, and that’s why we sued Trump.”

The suit is now pending in the District of Columbia Circuit Court.

Haste Makes Waste In Pipeline Decision

As for the Keystone XL Pipeline decision, it’s also tied up in litigation for broadly similar reasons. It was found to not be in the national interest in 2015, but under Trump, that finding was simply tossed out without any rhyme or reason.

“In their haste to issue a cross-border permit,” the complaint filed on March 29 alleged, the State Department “violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws [including “the Administrative Procedure Act (APA)] and ignored significant new information that bears on the project’s threats to the people, environment and national interests of the United States.”

As Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center For Biological Diversity, told Random Lengths, the State Department actions depended on an earlier environmental review from 2014, but “there are several things that have changed really drastically” since then. The law requires a careful review to make decisions based on current information. This includes a much lower price of oil and drastically reduced chances that oil train shipments could provide a viable alternative, given the string of oil train disasters that’s occurred since then.

The complaint alleged, “Keystone XL will enable the mining, transport, refining, and consumption of millions of additional gallons of tar sands crude oil per day and cause significant environmental harm that would not occur otherwise.”

Trump’s initial 60-day time-frame “seems to be why they didn’t choose to do a reanalysis,” Margolis explained.

“They were pushed very hard to approve this within that 60-day time, even though if they had done a proper reanalysis and provided public input and all that, there’s no way it could have been done,” he said.  “Rather than go through the correct process, they pushed it through without allowing [a reanalysis] to take place. So that’s one of our complaints.”

Further issues may be added in an amended complaint.

The violations of NEPA seem clear-cut, but the APA applies only to agency actions, and Trump could argue that this provides all the wiggle room he needs.

“We’re expecting an argument that this was a presidential action and that that doesn’t apply to presidential actions,” Margolis noted, even though the State Department carried it out.

However, Wall points out that there’s a parallel requirement that does apply to the president, which will be argued in the 2-for-1 case.

“One of the things President Trump swore to do when he took office was uphold the Constitution,” Wall said.

There are very few duties this explicitly entails, he noted, but “One of those duties is to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’ Trump’s executive order directs agencies in effect to violate the law, not to faithfully execute them.”

The same could well be argued in the Keystone XL case and possibly others. Trump has a well-documented habit of careless, impulsive actions which courts have note of, by striking down his Muslim travel ban, for example. Courts usually are highly sensitive to proper procedure, which is one thing that gives Wall a sense of hope.

“I think many Americans who care about the environment and care about the health of their kids woke up discouraged the day after the election, because Trump has promised to launch an assault on bedrock environmental protections. I certainly did,” Wall recalled. “But by the end of the day I was buoyed…. Because the federal judge in Michigan had issued a preliminary injunction, declaring the state of Michigan to deliver bottled water door-to-door in every household in Flint, Mich., to address the local contamination in that city’s water supply.”

That was a turning point for him.

“I knew at that moment that the federal judiciary would be enforcing the law, said Wall.  “Judges don’t care what the president tweets. Evidence matters, facts matter, the law matters. And, the judiciary will be a bulwark against lawlessness and efforts to take action to harm America’s environment health and economy.”

Perhaps. Harbor Area residents have seen the courts work well but have also seen them badly misfire over the years. But they are one form of reality-based check on Trump’s anything-goes fantasy-based approach to governance. And the marketplace, as noted above, is another one. Yet, courts and markets are politically malleable, as the just-completed theft of a Supreme Court seat reminds.

People Power, the Ultimate Clean Energy

“I need to pour cold water on the idea that ‘it’s going to be ok because of the market,’” said RL Miller, founder of the Climate Hawks Vote super-pac, a key early endorser of Rep. Nanette Barragan. “Politics has shaped policies, which shape the market, and will continue to do so.”

This means that if the market is going to save us, it will take a lot of political struggle to ensure that result. And, time is running out.

“This isn’t one step forward with Obama, one step back with Trump in a linear fashion the way it is with most other issues. This is one step up a mountain that is collapsing around us, because of the nonlinear acceleration of [climate change],” Miller said.

But she does see cause for hope in the political response to Trump so far.

“I see lots of pluses — the Indivisible movement, the collapse (so far) of the Obamacare repeal, everything that’s happening in California, the explosive growth at Climate Hawks Vote and many other organizations, the general sense that a previously silent majority has woken up and donned pink pussyhats and is prepared to march until the Trump regime ends,” she said. “But it’s not enough. I’m an optimist and a fighter by nature, but we haven’t been able to stop the head of Exxon Mobil from running the State Department, and that really says it all.”

The way forward she pointed to echoes the message of “Which Side Are You On?”

“Join the movement — your individual actions won’t save you,” Miller urged. “Take the fight to the state legislatures for the next year. Fight the rollbacks. Then get out to the midterms and vote like your life depends on it, and take back the House in 2018.”

“At Climate Hawks Vote, we’re already vetting potential 2018 candidates,” added Miller to show how serious she is. “And, we’re running a candidate training at the People’s Climate March in D.C.”

Trump’s attacks on climate science have spawned not one, but two major actions — the People’s Climate March on April 29  and the March for Science on April 22. Both have hundreds of sister marches. (For local details see Community Announcements.)

There are marches in Kentucky, as well. But none in Harlan County. Yet.

“Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.”