EPA’s big moment in coal country points to future turmoil

Source: Adam Aton, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2017

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The public hearings to repeal a landmark climate rule yesterday exposed anxiety in friends and foes of the regulation about what comes next along the nation’s divisive path to address rising temperatures.

Simmering beneath each sides’ arguments is a sense that the fight is getting harder and the stakes are higher. The hearings might address the controversial Clean Power Plan, but they don’t offer answers to the crises arising in testimony at the U.S. EPA hearings for both the climate and the coal sector.

Proponents of the rule agonized over the environmental damage of stalling coal power’s decline. At risk are people’s health, local environments and the global climate — and with such a broad swath of threats, some in the environmental movement hope this moment galvanizes support for an even tougher regulation after the Trump administration ends.

“Keep testifying. Today is only a formal testimony. Every day is your informal testimony,” Mark Magaña, president of Green Latinos, said to about a hundred environmentalists gathered for an alternative hearing across town. “We don’t have the … money that the opposition has. But we have the numbers. We have the people.”

Opponents of the regulation want to cut off the possibility of its ever returning, a harder task than just killing it once. For those with long-term investments in coal mines and power plants — and for the workers who draw their paychecks from them — repealing the Clean Power Plan hardly counts as a victory if it only lasts for the term of one president.

“We’re not looking for it to come back in four or five years,” said West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R). “We want to work with EPA to put appropriate regulatory and judicial restraints in place to make sure the power plan never again sees the light of day.”

Morrisey, a candidate for Senate, says that would best be done through legislation banning regulations that force changes to states’ energy mixes.

But with Congress unable to pass major legislation, he has some ideas about how EPA could use regulations to block a Clean Power Plan 2.0.

Another attack on the endangerment finding?

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is targeting the Clean Power Plan for exceeding the agency’s statutory authority under the Clean Air Act. But he hasn’t challenged the endangerment finding, a scientific document explaining why carbon dioxide poses a threat to human health and welfare.

As long as the endangerment finding remains on the books, conservatives eager to erase Obama’s climate legacy — and boost coal back to its glory days — could still have to prove they’re protecting humans from the harms of global warming.

In addition to challenging the endangerment finding’s science, Morrisey said he wants to challenge its scope by reopening questions about how it applies to stationary sources of carbon emissions.

“I think that’s going to bear some fruit, because we’ll find that there’s some real questions as to the extent of the endangerment finding,” he said. “It’s the scope of applicability for how far it goes and whether it should be limited to mobile sources or stationary sources.”

The endangerment finding was issued in 2009 as the Obama administration finalized vehicle emission standards. The way that EPA regulates stationary sources underwent years of legal disputes and survived a 2014 Supreme Court challenge (Climatewire, June 24, 2014).

During his public testimony, Morrisey urged EPA officials to work with him and other attorneys general to craft a coal-friendly replacement for the Clean Power Plan.

“Go further,” he said. “When you think you are lacking authority, talk to the states. Work with us, so we can help you in a manner that’s going to protect coal country and be consistent with your statutory mandate.”

Morrisey was less bullish after the hearing. Even West Virginia’s biggest utility is starting to move away from coal, citing the possibility of future regulations. To stop that, he says, will take a permanent end to the possibility of carbon regulations.

“Long-term, there has to be a refocus that the marketplace will be there in the future — and that’s why I’m talking about permanent prohibitions on the Obama power plan, sending a message to everyone that there will be a viable future for coal,” he said.

Greens aim at miners

Speakers at the coal country-based hearing couldn’t overlook the rows of men in mining helmets and reflective jackets taking up half the room.

The miners work for Murray Energy Corp., and they sat behind their boss, coal baron Bob Murray. When Murray took his position to speak, he railed against the Obama administration’s “war on coal” before turning to the workers.

“God bless you. God bless every one of you,” Murray said. The audience applauded the miners; it wouldn’t be the last time.

Environmentalists aimed a wedge between mine workers and management throughout the day. Liz Perera, the Sierra Club’s climate policy director, began her testimony by saying her group supports miners’ pensions and safety regulations, while coal companies have spent years backpedaling on both.

The West Virginia-based environmentalists were less diplomatic.

“This is an extraction colony,” April Pierson-Keating, an activist from nearby Upshur County, said during the greens’ alternative hearing. “For 152 years, extractive industries have preyed upon these people who are largely poor and undereducated — they don’t know their rights; they don’t know where to go for help; they don’t have money for a lawyer.”

As the day’s hearings wore on, the number of Clean Power Plan opponents dwindled until just about every speaker was asking — sometimes pleading — for EPA to take emissions more seriously.

“You’re ignoring so much. And it makes me rather angry,” said Allan Tweddle, an 85-year-old engineer who lives nearby in Charleston.

After his speaking time expired, he tried approaching EPA officials to show them pictures of communities affected by climate change. They ordered him to sit down, and an event coordinator rushed forward to take him from the panel.

Tweddle sat through a few more testimonies before grabbing his cane and leaving.

“What a farce,” he said.