Mr. President: To Save Coal, Join the Paris Agreement

This article originally appeared in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Gillette News Record, and Casper Star Tribune on July 16th, 2019.

Blackjewel’s recent bankruptcy has left 700 workers without a paycheck, and was the sixth of its kind in only four years. While our delegation in Washington has offered their sympathies to struggling families, what Campbell County and our state economy really need is a plan, not condolences. 

Here’s one: rejoin the Paris Agreement.

For too long, our coal communities have been political punching bags. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton promised to put coal miners out of jobs, while Donald Trump promised to save coal by rolling back regulations. Both sides were disingenuous. The Clinton campaign knew that no new coal-fired plants were scheduled to come on line, and there was little that could be done to accelerate the planned retirements. And the Trump campaign should have understood that no electric utility will undertake construction of a new conventional coal plant for economic reasons, not because of regulations.

To be sure, the standards for mercury and air toxics (MATS) adopted in 2011 as part of the Clean Power Plan under Democratic President Barack Obama and the 1972 Clean Water Act signed by Republican Richard Nixon made coal-fired plants more expensive to operate. But the primary reason for declining demand has to do with the deregulation of the electrical grid, and the low cost and abundance of natural gas through fracking, two policies that were supported by Republicans.

Today, if you ask any utility executive whether rescinding every Obama administration environmental regulation would cause them to build a new coal-fired plant, the answer would be no.

Fortunately, the Paris Agreement provides a perfect opportunity to save coal. In its simplest form, the agreement requires each signatory to submit a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Each country has the flexibility to design the program and timeline.

When President Trump announced his plan to withdraw two years ago, he got nothing in return because large states like California made clear their intentions to continue to implement elements of the Clean Power Plan, and automakers sustained their efforts to invest in electric cars and increased fuel efficiency. Despite Trump’s intentions and increased regulatory rollbacks, not a single new coal plant is being planned in the U.S.

Coal communities don’t need empty promises, they need a viable plan – and that means working with the Democratic Party. Fortunately, by agreeing to join the Paris Agreement with two conditions, President Trump can change all that.

The first condition would be to allow Japan and South Korea access to Wyoming’s clean-burning coal. This, by itself, would save the Powder River Basin, because while U.S. demand for coal is on the decline, demand worldwide continues to rise. Japan and South Korea, in particular, don’t have the land mass for solar or wind, and have no large natural carbon reserves. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, there is no appetite for extending Japan’s nuclear energy program.

Which means one of the easiest ways to reduce worldwide carbon emissions is to export clean coal from here and displace less environmentally sensitive coal from China and Indonesia. The environmental movement has resisted opening export terminals along the Columbia River, but they desperately want to rejoin the Paris Agreement. There is a deal to be made.

The second condition would be for the Senate and House to pass the USE IT Act, a bipartisan bill championed by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., to push carbon capture technology. Carbon capture has the chance to transform coal into a “carbon neutral” form of electrical generation which, if allowed to succeed, would give coal a viable future. But the USE IT Act authorizes only $50 million in funding for critical research and development, and should first be amended.

To put this into perspective, in 2016 alone, renewable energy research and development received $456 million – down from earlier years when it nearly reached $1 billion. Wind and solar would not have reached commercial viability without public funding – coal technology deserves that same opportunity. The Democratic Caucus wants to reduce carbon emissions and rejoin the Paris Accords. We want to sell our coal. Again, there is a deal to be made.

This proposed deal is also good politics for Republicans because, like it or not, 81% of Americans are concerned about climate change, and voters disapprove of President Trump’s environmental policies by a ratio of two to one. Since recent polls suggest the president currently trails all Democratic front-runners and is behind in the swing states of Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, cutting a deal to reduce carbon emissions while saving coal would advance his brand as a master deal maker and improve his chances in 2020.

Fighting environmental groups to simply slow down the demise of coal isn’t working. We have to acknowledge we’re playing a losing hand and that time is running out for Wyoming.

The families of Campbell County who just lost their paychecks don’t need political sympathy, and they don’t need harsh soundbites that portray Democrats as our enemy. The price of partisanship has become too high.

It’s time to stop using our coal communities for votes and tweets, and instead save coal by working together.