Scott Pruitt Can't Stop the Death of Big Coal

Ultimately, there's nothing the EPA chief can do to halt the decline of the coal industry

Pacificorp's 1,440-megawatt coal-fired power plant. Credit: George Frey/Getty Images

I wrote my first story about the coal industry back in 2001, published a book called Big Coal in 2006 and have been following the industry ever since. And if there's one central truth that I've learned during that time, it's this: Virtually no coal industry leader, lobbyist or hack politician believes coal has a future in America. Everyone else knows it's a dead industry walking. The only question now is how much money they can extract, and how much damage they can do to our health, our economy and the climate, before Big Coal sinks into the tar pit of history.

I tell you this because this is the only way to really understand EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's announcement this week that he's going to gut President Obama's signature climate achievement, the Clean Power Plan. This is hardly a surprise. From the moment Pruitt was confirmed by the Senate earlier this year, it was a foregone conclusion that he would try to emasculate the Clean Power Plan. This was the whole point of his nomination – the thing he had been preparing for all his professional life. The only question was how soon he would do it, and what legal arguments he would make to justify it.

The Clean Power Plan was one of Obama's central accomplishments during his second term. The plan established state-by-state targets to cut the carbon pollution from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Despite what the coal industry says, these were hardly radical targets, and were simply a slow acceleration of decline that was going to happen anyway. But politically, they were hugely important. It was part of the run-up to Paris, a key part of the deal, making our pledge credible and allowing the nations of the world to come together to build a new framework to dramatically cut carbon pollution in the coming decades.

But now, of course, Trump (aided by Pruitt) has promised to pull the U.S. out of the Paris deal and is doing everything he can to convince Americans we can live in a 21st-century world with 19th-century power. It's a move pitched directly to Trump's base – to folks he's conned into believing that the past is the road to the future, and that burning more coal will fuel a kind of magic carpet that will take America back to a (fake) time when white men with muscles ruled the world. Trump may be our moron-in-chief, but he has understood better than anyone the potency of coal as a cultural symbol and talisman.

But while Trump's push for fossil fuels risks cooking the planet and stalling economic growth, the rollback of the Clean Power Plan may not be as consequential as it first appears.

For one thing, no amount of regulatory shenanigans will save the coal industry. The simple fact is, the cost curves for renewable power like solar and wind are declining fast, while coal is getting ever more expensive to mine and burn. It's highly unlikely anybody is going to build a new coal plant in America ever again. (Globally, it's a different story.) In addition, cheap natural gas has gutted the coal industry; why burn dirty coal when gas is cleaner, cheaper and easier to transport? The happy upside of all this is that, even without the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. is on track to meet the climate goals in the power plant sector set out by the Paris deal. Keeping the Clean Power Plan intact would certainly help accelerate that progress, and every ton of carbon dumped into the atmosphere pushes us deeper into climate chaos – but there's a reason why when I ask clean energy entrepreneurs about Pruitt's rollback, they often shrug. Coal is roadkill on the highway of progress.

The second point is that this rollback is going to be a political fiasco, in large part because the EPA is legally required to regulate carbon pollution in a way that reduces the danger it poses to public health. Over at Vox, David Roberts does a great job of laying out the political box that Pruitt and the Republicans have built for themselves on this, and I encourage everyone to read his piece. The legal framework is straightforward: In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts v. EPA, that carbon dioxide qualifies as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. If the EPA determines carbon is a danger to public health, the Court said, it must regulate carbon to reduce that danger. In 2009, the EPA issued its Endangerment Finding, demonstrating – based on intensive research and documentation – that greenhouse gases are in fact a danger to public health. So Pruitt can dance around all he wants, but in the end the EPA is going to have to come up with a plan to significantly reduce carbon pollution. As Roberts writes, "We return to the central dilemma facing conservatives here: They are determined to protect coal, but there's no way to reduce emissions from the electricity sector without closing coal plants (or switching them to a different fuel)."

For Pruitt and his fossil fuel cronies, the real target here is the Endangerment Finding. As David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me for a profile of Pruitt I wrote earlier this year:

"The goal is to destroy the legal foundation for greenhouse-gas regulations of any kind. Pruitt will either have to prove that accumulation of all greenhouse gases isn't damaging, or that contributions from vehicles and power plants aren't contributing to the problem. And he will need to document it all with a double Mount Everest of data to offset the Mount Everest of data that shows that accumulated pollution does indeed endanger public health and welfare. No one thinks it's possible, especially with his resources and staff. He will be laughed out of court."

We shall see. Meanwhile, the Trump administration's fossil fuel charade will ramble on, endangering our health, our economy, our climate. According to one recent study, rolling back the Clean Power Plan will sacrifice up to 560,000 new clean energy jobs and $56 billion in additional economic growth. It's also going to kill people. By the EPA's own measure, the plan would avoid 3,600 premature deaths each year, as well as 90,000 asthma attacks.

In my years of writing about coal, I've met those people: kids on inhalers in rural Pennsylvania, young men and women on breathing machines in West Virginia, a fisherman in Georgia who was afraid to eat the fish he caught because he knew it was full of mercury. I've seen the glaciers melting in Greenland, and the water rising in Miami (in fact, I just wrote a book about it). On Tuesday, at the very moment Pruitt is in Kentucky boasting about unraveling the Clean Power Plan, more than 20,000 people are fleeing wildfires are burning across northern California. Our world is changing fast, thanks to our near-suicidal dependence on fossil fuels. A hundred years ago, coal was the engine of progress. But today, it's the enemy of progress – and of civilized life. And nothing Pruitt can do will change that, or halt its inevitable and welcome decline.