Trump shakes hands with coal miner in the White House. Feb 2017.
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Trump wants to create jobs, lower prices, and make the US energy independent. This plan won’t do any of those things

Today’s ‘Energy Independence Executive Order’ is doomed to fail. Here’s why

Last week, healthcare. This week, the planet.

Trump is working hard at reversing the Obama administration’s legacy – but just as it was more difficult than he’d thought to throw Obamacare out the window, it seems like bringing back the coal industry won’t be as easy as he’d hoped either.

What’s the story?

“Saving our wonderful coalminers from being put out of work” was one of the rallying cries of Trump’s campaign, winning him support across states with a history of coal mining. Now, he’s following up.

The ‘Energy Independence Executive Order’, to be signed by the president today, will order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to roll back Obama’s actions against climate change, known as the Clean Power Plan. The aim is threefold: create jobs, lower energy prices, and make the US energy industry independent – in other words, stop buying energy from abroad.

Scott Pruitt, who was appointed head of the EPA at the start of Trump's presidency, says it’ll signal the start of a ‘pro-jobs, pro-environment’ narrative. As one White House official put it to the press, “When it comes to climate change, we want to do it in our own form and fashion.”

Trump Inauguration Dance: My Way

The Clean Power Plan, explained

Like healthcare, tackling climate change was high on Obama’s agenda – one of the last things he did in office was write a piece for Science journal on why he thinks a clean energy shift is ‘irreversible’ (so news of this order is probably gonna hurt…)

The idea of the Clean Power Plan was to set the US on course to meet its commitments in the Paris Climate Deal, a global agreement made in 2015 to slow global warming.

Here’s the crux of what it said:

1. Cut carbon dioxide pollution from coal-fired power plants 32% below 2005 levels by 2030

2. Put a temporary ban (also called a ‘moratorium’) on building new coal power plants, replacing the ones we’ve got already with wind and solar farms instead

3. Measure the cost of carbon dioxide through what’s known as a ‘social cost’ metric – calculating not just the short-term price, but also the long-term cost of the effects of global warming, by predicting the damage that things like droughts and floods are likely to cause on local economies. The social cost of carbon was set at $36 per ton of carbon dioxide in 2015

Under Obama, the EPA said that the Clean Power Plan would prevent 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks and 300,000 missed workdays and school days a year.

But Pruitt doesn’t believe that carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global warming – so he’s not convinced the Clean Plower Plan is a good idea.

"It is not a primary contributor to the global warming that we see," says Scott Pruitt in an interview with CNBC.

Trump's executive order, explained

This executive order isn’t actually going to make any immediate policy changes – all it does is order the EPA to review Obama’s plans.

The main things he wants the EPA to look at are the ban on new coal plants, the standards for CO2 and methane emissions, the $36 figure for the social cost of carbon, and the rules and regulations which currently restrict how energy is made in the US – or domestic energy production. Basically, all the most important bits.

The end game is pretty clear. He’s hoping to lift the ban to be able to build more plants like he promised his coal miner supporters, lower the estimate of the social cost of carbon to make coal cheaper, and scrap regulations which prevent energy production within the US to bring the country closer to the independence he’s been talking about.

Could it work?

Miss piggy – no


Honestly. Even Fox News says so. Even the head of one of the biggest coal companies in the United States says so.

Here’s why:

1. It’s not regulations that are taking coal jobs away. It’s competition, and machines. 

Trump is trying to rescue an industry that the ‘market’ just doesn’t want anymore. Energy economists across the US pretty much all agree coal mines aren’t closing because of regulations; they’re closing because the alternatives – natural gas, and renewables – are just cheaper, cleaner, and better.

And even if people did keep investing in coal, they’d get machines to operate the mines, not people. He’s trying to save a product that no-one really wants – to save jobs that probably won’t exist.

2. Scrapping regulations isn’t going to bring energy prices down – especially not regulations on coal

The price of a product comes from all sorts of things – some of the big ones are the cost of producing it, the amount of the product available (or ‘supply’), and how much government support the industry is getting.

Trump might be boosting the last of those factors, but when it comes to coal, the first two are doomed to fail – especially in contrast to the alternatives. Natural gas is cheaper to produce, and renewable energy is by definition more available than coal, a finite resource.

Scrapping regulations on coal isn’t going to change those things – meaning energy prices aren’t going to go down anywhere near as much as they would if the government invested in an abundant, cheap–to–produce resources ( renewables) instead.

3. This isn’t going to make the US energy independent (which isn’t even necessarily a good idea in the first place)

Not to sound like too much of a broken record, but coal just isn’t sustainable – so basing a future of energy independence around it is a really, really bad idea.

Right now, the US gets about 20% of its energy from abroad. If it wants to bring that in-house, most economists and scientists think that either renewables, or another source of energy called shale gas, are the only ways to do that… not coal.

Plus, some economists aren’t so sure that energy independence is the best goal to have. The US exports a lot of energy to other countries, and if it stops buying anything from abroad, those countries might decide to take their business elsewhere – which would be bad news for US companies.

What happens now?

None of this is guaranteed. And all of it is likely to face a lot of resistance – from local NGOs and climate change activists, and from international organizations too. This order is just a review, and any decisions off the back of it would have to be justified in court.

But the order still sends a pretty unmistakeable sign that this administration is set on de-prioritising climate change, and re-prioritising jobs. The problem is, it really, really doesn’t look likely that his plans are going to save any – at least not in the long term. But the damage they’re likely to do to the planet? That’s here to stay.

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