E.P.A. Heads to Coal Country to Hear Views on an Obama Climate Rule

Source: By JOHN SCHWARTZ, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Robert E. Murray, founder and president of Murray Energy, a major coal producer, speaking at the hearing on plans to repeal the Clean Power Plan. Mark E. Trent for The New York Times

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Environmental Protection Agency convened a public hearing on Tuesday on its plan to roll back the signature climate change rule of the Obama administration. More than 270 people signed up to speak.

The regulation, known as Clean Power Plan, would require states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, particularly those that burn coal. The plan, finalized in 2015, would have accelerated a shift already underway from coal-generated power to natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

The proposal sparked a bitter fight from coal interests and from many conservative state officials. The former Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, was one of the officials in 29 states who filed a lawsuit to fight the plan. President Trump named Mr. Pruitt head of the E.P.A., where he has made it a top priority to reverse what he has called the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

E.P.A. officials listened to speakers at the hearing. Scott Pruitt, the head of the agency, did not attend.Mark E. Trent for The New York Times

Mr. Trump and Mr. Pruitt, like many other administration officials, question the overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is mainly caused by human activity — a conclusion repeated this month by the government’s own scientists in 13 federal agencies.

As part of a broad effort to uproot the environmental policies of the Obama administration, Mr. Pruitt announced in October that he would kill the Clean Power Plan, which he said did not follow regulatory norms and imposed undue burdens on states and energy producers. Tuesday’s public hearing was a required part of undoing the regulation.

Mr. Pruitt did not attend.

Holding the hearing in West Virginia “is like holding the only hearing on financial deregulation at the Wall Street Hilton — it does not denote a keen interest in alternative views,” Michael B. Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, said in an interview last week.

So many people requested time to speak that they were spread out over three meeting rooms in the state capitol during the two days set aside for the hearing.

Murray Energy brought in dozens of miners for the event. More than 270 people signed up to speak.Mark E. Trent for The New York Times

During the morning hearing, Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general of West Virginia, led off the speakers, saying that the power plan “is not only unlawful, but it’s bad policy as well.” He led the coalition of states that sued to stop the power plan. The Supreme Court in February delayed enforcement of the regulation. (In similar fashion, a number of Democratic state attorneys general, including Maura Healey of Massachusetts and Eric T. Schneiderman of New York, have pledged to fight the repeal in court.)

Robert E. Murray, founder and president of Murray Energy, a major coal producer, exulted, “In President Trump, we finally have a president who has vowed to preserve coal jobs.” The Obama administration’s rule, which he called the “so-called and illegal Clean Power Plan, better known as the no-power plan,” would impose “massive costs on the power sector and American consumers” while eliminating even more coal jobs.

Before the hearing began, Mr. Murray warmly greeted dozens of miners whom his company brought in by bus for the event. “You all know you have to work the afternoon shift now,” he joked.

Several groups are also holding an alternate hearing across the Kanawha River, at the University of Charleston, to discuss the environmental, health and climate benefits of reducing coal consumption. “The Clean Power Plan has a lot of support,” said Bill Price, a local organizer for the Sierra Club who grew up in the area and whose father worked in the coal mines. Since the shift to power sources like solar and wind create jobs and clean the environment, he said, the Clean Power Plan is “pro-worker, pro-economy and it’s pro-environment.”

Stanley Sturgill, a retired Kentucky coal miner who is now an activist, spoke against the repeal. Mark E. Trent for The New York Times

Some of the speakers marveled at the turnaround on environmental regulation that a change in administrations had wrought. Speaking in favor of repeal, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association said, “I don’t think we have ever testified in favor of anything the E.P.A. has ever done.”

Opponents of repeal attending the hearing offered rebuttal. Jim Probst, West Virginia coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby, said that he was speaking with future generations in mind, and said that it was wrong to blame regulations for coal’s woes. “The reality is that the coal industry has been in decline for many years.”

Liz Perera, climate policy director of the Sierra Club, testified that the Trump administration had “inappropriately cooked the books” on the costs and benefits of the plan. “This is about the kind of world we will leave for our children,” she said.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired Kentucky coal miner who has become an activist, started out at 3 a.m. to get to the hearing. Now 71 and afflicted with black lung and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he called repealing the plan “immoral and indefensible.” He repeated a comment he gave in support of the plan in 2014: “We’re dying, literally dying, for you to help us.”

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of greenhouse gases: they produce about one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.

This is the sole hearing scheduled on repealing the plan; the Obama administration held four such hearings in creating it. A spokesman for the E.P.A. said, “We continue to assess the needs for additional hearings, and in the meantime encourage all stakeholders to submit their comments to the public docket, which will be open until January 16, 2018.”