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‘New era’ of energy production draws ire of environmentalists


With a “new era” of energy production given credence with President Donald Trump’s executive order to help revive the coal industry and—it is anticipated—to create jobs, critics in California and in several other states believe that years of progress in combating global warming may have been for naught.

President Trump’s move makes good on his campaign promise to rollback the Obama administration’s attempt to wean America from fossil fuels. His executive order seeks to suspend, rescind or flag for review measures that have placed more stringent controls on energy providers to reduce pollutants from entering the atmosphere. The order initiates a review of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which restricted greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants. This regulation has been the subject of long-running legal challenges by Republican-led states and those industry leaders who may profit from increased burning of oil, coal and gas.

Under the new order, the federal government will reportedly abandon the so-called “social cost of carbon” that regulators had carefully calculated and begun factoring into their decisions on permit applications and rule making. The new directives could mean less restrictions on methane releases at oil and gas drilling facilities, and agencies can reportedly stop contemplating climate impacts as they launch new projects. In addition, restrictions on coal leasing and fracking on federal lands will be lifted.

“An outrageous move”—Gov. Jerry Brown

California leaders quickly denounced the new energy directives. Gov. Jerry Brown vowed that the president’s “outrageous move will galvanize contrary force” and already he and more than a dozen  U.S. governors have moved to consolidate the power of other states and countries who are united on climate action. This may be a formidable coalition as U.S. states and foreign governments represent about a billion people and a third of the global economy (California is the world’s fifth largest economy).

“Gutting the Clean Power Plan is a colossal mistake and defies science itself,” Brown said last week. “Erasing climate change may take place in Donald Trump’s mind, but nowhere else.”

Trump’s order lifts a 14-month moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands. The Obama administration had imposed a three-year moratorium on new federal coal leases in January 2016, arguing that the $1 billion-a-year program must be modernized to insure a fair financial return to taxpayers and address climate change. But while Republicans have blamed Obama-era environmental regulations for the loss of coal jobs, federal data has shown that U.S. mines have been shedding jobs for decades under presidents of both parties, because of increased automation and competition from natural gas and oil shale exploration.

Advances in solar power and wind turbines have also affected the coal mining industry as these methods can produce emissions-free electricity much cheaper than burning coal.

Obama rules ‘burdensome, expensive”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) carbon dioxide emissions standards for new power plants, first proposed under the Clean Power Plan in 2012 and finalized in 2015, effectively banned construction of new coal plants that don’t utilize highly speculative carbon-capture-and-storage technology. Industry insiders said this measure played a significant role in taking new coal plants off the table, as utility companies could see that it would be to expensive to build a plant to meet the more stringent pollution guidelines.

The coal industry has been under fire for decades for the dangerous conditions its workers must endure ranging from mine collapses to “black lung disease.” But even more concerning to its future are the booming supplies of natural gas—thanks to hydraulic fracturing—and increasing mechanization of coal mines which means more jobs are likely to be threatened.

Business groups like the American Petroleum Institute have long complained that the Clean Power Plan was too burdensome and expensive. They have touted the new energy production plan as “common sense” regulations that will help revive domestic energy production that will ultimately benefit consumers, workers and the environment.

But Brown isn’t so sure. He is leading a coalition of 16 states and the District of Columbia who say they will fight any effort by the Trump administration to withdraw the Clean Power Plan. Brown believes the new rules will be overturned in court.

“Climate change is real and is a great threat that cannot be ignored,” Brown said. “I have met with many heads of state, ambassadors. This is a growing movement … things have been a bit tepid [in climate activism]. But this conflict, this sharpening of the contradiction, will energize those who believe climate change is an existential threat.”

Paris agreement remains in place

In California, many environmental groups applauded the Clean Power Plan for its aggressive stand against excess CO2 emissions and have also said it could help the U.S. create thousands of clean-energy jobs. Former vice president Al Gore, who for years has been a vocal advocate of clean energy technology, blasted Trump’s action as “… a misguided step away from a sustainable, carbon-free future for ourselves and generations to come.” Gore further stated: “It is essential, not only to our planet, but also to our economic future, that the United States continues to serve as a global leader in solving the climate crisis by transitioning to clean energy; a transition that will continue to gain speed due to the increasing competitiveness of solar and wind. No one—not even President Trump—can stop the encouraging and escalating momentum we are experiencing in the fight to protect our planet.”

The Trump  administration has not decided whether it intends to withdraw from the international climate agreement signed in Paris two years ago to set goals to reduce carbon pollution. His order does contradict a 2009 finding by the EPA that greenhouse gases endanger the public health and welfare. This latter finding, along with a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, helped to form the basis of the Clean Power Plan. EPA chief Scott Pruitt has said that the finding “needs to be enforced and respected” despite candidate Trump once labeling global warming a “hoax” invented by the Chinese.

Pruitt last month alarmed environmental groups and scientists when he said he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming. The overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed studies and climate scientists tend to refute Pruitt’s beliefs and stand in agreement that the plant is warming, mostly due to man-made sources including carbon dioxide, methane, halocarbons and nitrogen oxide.

Scientists say humans drive climate change

President Trump’s executive order did not withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, nor does it begin a process to repeal the EPA’s “endangerment finding” on carbon emissions which underlies the Clean Power Plan. The endangerment finding found that greenhouse gases threatened human health and welfare. Pruitt said last week any attempt to overturn the finding would be a “messy and protracted court battle” that would be very unlikely to succeed.

At the Paris conference, 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists were cited in agreement that human activity is driving rapid climate change. The American delegation brought along the signatures of 117 mayors in forming the Compact of Mayors pledge, as well as the signatures of 154 businesses in the American Business Act on Climate. In addition, 311 American colleges and universities signed onto the College Campuses Act on Climate. A study conducted in early 2015 by Nature Climate Change contends that the world’s climate scientists want to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees celsius  by 2100, and eventually stop the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2060. Presently, the United States is the second-worst carbon emitter in the world.

In Lancaster, the new energy guidelines likely won’t hamper the drive toward Net Zero status. Mayor R. Rex Parris said as much last month at the San Diego Choice Energy Forum where he spoke of the importance and impact of his city’s sustainability and climate-change initiatives. Lancaster has been a leader in opting away from traditional energy providers, specifically through its Lancaster Choice Energy utility,  as part of a growing effort toward energy sustainability. For a number of years, Parris has served as an unofficial ambassador touting the benefits of renewable energy. He has discussed the subject in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and in many American cities. Parris represents a city within one of the last strongholds of Republican power in the southland. He has tended to deviate from any traditional conservative ideology in regard to climate change with that of the ecological welfare of his city, specifically in encouraging a shift from fossil fuels to green energy sources.

Lancaster and renewable energy

“It is crystal clear that renewable, clean and sustainable energy is vital to the economic and environmental wellbeing of not only Lancaster, but of America and beyond,” Parris said. “This is a goal that transcends cultural, political and national boundaries.” His city is big on renewable energy, particularly community choice aggregation in which local governments can aggregate electricity demand to better procure alternative energy supplies and pass savings on to customers. “It’s all about taking back the power,” he explained. “It allows municipalities to have more influence on the future of their communities and more options for setting sustainable practices in place, while providing numerous benefits for residents.”

The same is true for California. The decision to eliminate the Clean Power Plan likely will pose little threat to a state already marching toward renewable energy. The California Energy Commission says that greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation statewide are already below what the federal government would have required by 2030 … and they’re expected to drop even further. State law requires California to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2030. California and the federal government share equal responsibility, however, in regulating vehicle emissions and the roll back of federal energy rules could have some bearing in this area because of the huge amount of vehicles traversing California’s highways. Then there’s the question of how Trump’s decision could affect various efforts for California to integrate its electricity grid with neighboring states. Advocates of the concept say regional cooperation could expand the market for renewable energy, but the lack of federal pressure to cut emissions could dampen enthusiasm in places like Utah and Wyoming which rely mostly on coal for energy production.

“Green lobby” crosses political boundaries

While President Trump said his order will “return power to the states, where it belongs,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, recently vetoed an effort to get rid of his state’s clean energy mandate at the urging of an increasingly influential “green” lobby there. However, the oil and gas lobbies have become more organized and sophisticated as well, and environmentalists looking to pressure Midwestern states into embracing California-style policies may have a fight on their hands. David Bookbinder is chief counsel for the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that focuses on global warming solutions. He said the utility industry is prepared to fight these carbon-reducing mandates to the end.

“It is hard to change the entire mind-set of an industry that has grown up on decade after decade of fossil fuels,” Bookbinder said. On the other side of the issue is Tom Steyer, the California billionaire famous of late for helping to shape climate policy. After Trump’s announcement, Steyer admitted that while the effort to “go green” here and in other states and countries is encouraging, the climate movement is facing a daunting challenge from the Trump administration.

“The fact of the matter is this guy is still president,” Steyer said, “and Republicans still control the Congress; they still control 70 percent of statehouses. We are in an absolutely terrible position.”