The battle lines were clearly on display on the first day of the Environmental Protection Agency’s two days of hearings on its plan to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to cut power sector emissions.
The hearings, held in the heart of coal country in Charleston, W.V., began with comments from coal advocates such as West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, the country’s largest privately owned coal producer.
EPA staffers also heard from advocates from environmental organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club, as well as representatives of smaller organizations and many private citizens who oppose repeal of the CPP.
Backers of the coal industry showed up in force for the start of first day of the EPA’s hearings on the repeal of the CPP. They were met by a steady stream of citizens concerned about climate change and what repeal of the CPP would mean for the environment and for public health.
The hearings, held in three rooms at the state’s capitol building, began with West Virginia Attorney General Morrisey, who called the CPP “disastrous and unlawful.”
Morrisey led a legal challenge to the CPP filed by 27 states. The proposed plan, which never reached implementation because of the Supreme Court freeze, called for a 32% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. The Trump administration is now trying to now trying to repeal the Obama-era plan.
Representatives from the coal industry itself also showed up in force. In addition to CEO Robert Murray, Murray Energy sent the company’s CFO, executive vice president of sales and marketing and vice president of governmental affairs. There were also about 30 coal miners in work clothes in the audience. The New Republic reported that Bob Murray denied asking them to show up, but a coal miner told the news outlet otherwise.
In his testimony, Murray called for the repeal “in its entirety” of the CPP.
“The illegal Clean Power Plan, better known as the no power plan, is a linchpin of Mr. Obama and Democrats’ War on Coal,” he said.
Murray said the CPP would “devastate coal-fired electricity generation in America and U.S. coal industry” and would impose “massive costs on the power sector and American consumers.”
Murray's statements belies the fact many utilities are retiring coal plants because of stiff competition from cheap natural gas. And utilities are unlikely to invest in new coal-fired generation, despite attempts from the Trump administration to bolster the resource, which could cost ratepayers billions annually.
The coal industry’s claims were also countered by representatives from environmental groups, such as Ben Levitan, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, who said repealing the Clean Power Plan would be “deeply harmful to the health and well-being of communities nationwide.”
Levitan also said the CPP would “help leverage one of the most promising sources of new jobs and economic opportunities in America, clean energy,” which he said is a $200 billion industry employing more than 3 million people. “Repealing the Clean Power Plan would threaten these opportunities without yielding any benefits for coal communities.”
That was a theme that was repeated by several people who said they want to see the CPP upheld, namely, that support for renewable energy would provide more jobs than the dwindling coal industry can provide.
One speaker, Mindy Zlotnick, said “Trump is surrendering global leadership to China,” which is investing $360 billion in renewable energy technologies and creating 13 million new clean energy jobs.
Like many other speakers, Levitan also criticized the EPA for ignoring requests for additional hearings and only scheduling the single two-day hearing in West Virginia. He contrasted that to the EPA under the Obama administration, which held four public hearings and fielded in excess of 3 million comments while drafting the CPP. EPA will continue to take comments until Jan. 6.
Despite the fact that the hearings are being held deep within coal country, many private citizens – many of them from West Virginia – showed up to oppose the repeal the CPP. There were about 270 people scheduled to speak, and a steady stream of them talked about health problems, such as asthma, caused by air pollution from coal plants and about environmental degradation.
One of them, Stanley Sturgill, a 72 year old retired coal miner, who says he suffers from black lung disease, travelled three hours from Harlan County, Ky., to speak at the hearing.
Sturgill made a living mining coal but, he says, “We paid a terrible price. They destroyed our mountains, our streams, and our health.”
He urged the EPA staffers to “stop listening to the corrupting power” of the fossil fuel industry. “Just how many people must pay the supreme price of death for a few rich, greedy people to bank a few dollars?” Sturgill asked.
The legal standing of the CPP was brought up by several opponents of the plan. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said the CPP is “illegal” because it reaches it sought to regulate emissions "outside the fenceline" rather than target specific plants for efficiency, known as "inside the fence."
That issue was also brought up by Daniel Chartier, regulatory director of environmental policy for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and by Kathy Beckett of Steptoe & Johnson, who spoke on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Pruitt is reportedly looking at a narrower set of regulations targeting thermal efficiency at coal-fired power plants.
Backers of the plan, however, pointed out that the EPA is under a legal obligation to enact some form of CO2 limiting regulations as a result of the Supreme Court’s “endangerment finding” that came out of its Massachusetts v. EPA ruling in 2007 that found that CO2 presents a health risk.
“The Supreme Court has legally required the EPA to regulate pollution,” Liz Perera, the Sierra Club’s climate policy director, told the EPA staffers. “Pruitt’s proposal ignores the clean energy economy is booming and will continue regardless of this administration's strategy to favor preferred industries,” she said.
Among the other themes raised in the hearings were the costs of the CPP. Several CPP opponents said the plan would raise electricity prices by $214 billion. Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, cited the $214 billion figure and said, “The costs are real; the benefits are not.”
The opponents were countered by those who cited the health care costs that inaction would incur and highlighted the potential $10.6 billion pricetag of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to provide payments to baseload generators.
Many opponents of repeal mentioned that coal plants are failing because of markets force – essentially cheap natural gas – not because of environmental regulations. Repealing the CPP would not do anything to change those dynamics, they said.
Politics was an undercurrent to the hearing, with many opponents of the CPP mentioning the Obama administration’s “war on coal” and their desire to undo that legacy.
Hamilton, of the West Virginia Coal Association, also mentioned the controversy about about Russian interference in the recent presidential election, but said it was not the Russians who interfered in the election, “it was divine intervention, and I thank the Lord he got the country, the greatest country on earth, to vote for Donald Trump.”
EPA will continue to take comments until Jan. 6.