On Tuesday, as lawmakers, energy executives, and environmental advocates flocked to the West Virginia State Capitol for the Environmental Protection Agency’s only public hearing on the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, WEC Energy Group — Wisconsin’s largest utility — announced the retirement of the Pleasant Prairie coal-fired power plant, citing a changing energy market that favored cheaper sources of energy such as natural gas or renewables.
But inside the capitol, coal advocates painted their own reality, in which the Trump administration is revitalizing the coal industry and the Obama administration is to blame for its recent decline. And while no administration officials spoke during the hearing, the stream of pro-coal rhetoric was illustrative of a strategy EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and President Trump have used before: when the facts don’t match their political agenda, they manufacture an alternate reality.
“In President Trump, we finally have a president who has vowed to preserve coal jobs, and low-cost, reliable, fuel-secure electricity for all Americans,” Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy and a longtime critic of the Clean Power Plan, said during his testimony on Tuesday morning, adding that Trump’s actions had already prevented some 3,000 megawatts of coal power from retiring and saved 25,000 coal mining jobs.
“God bless President Trump, and god bless coal miners,” Murray said to thunderous applause from about 30 Murray Energy coal miners who packed the main hearing room.
Later, during a press conference held by pro-coal groups, Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, echoed Murray’s sentiment, lauding the Trump administration’s pro-coal agenda and calling the 2016 presidential election “perhaps the greatest day this industry has seen.”
But facts — as well as past statements made by coal executives — contradict such a sunny outlook for the coal industry. It’s true that the industry has seen a small amount of growth since Trump took office, gaining about 62 million tons in production since last year. But that growth isn’t because of Trump, or EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — it’s due to a combination of above-average natural gas prices as well as economic factors abroad.
In the long-term, energy experts remain confident that coal use will continue to fall, both domestically and internationally. And Trump’s sprawling deregulatory agenda hasn’t exactly stopped the wave of domestic coal plant retirements that began under President George W. Bush and continued through Obama — since Trump took office in January, 24 coal plants have been slated for retirement. As one study from the Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy concluded, “President Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental regulations will not materially improve economic conditions in America’s coal communities.”
During the hearing and at side events held near the capitol, those cheering the repeal of the Clean Power Plan heaped blame for the coal industry’s current condition on the Obama administration at large and the regulation in particular.
Rupie Phillips, a West Virginia state representative who is running for U.S. Congress, told a group of coal miners at a luncheon on Tuesday, “thank God the terrorist on coal is gone,” a reference to President Obama. Bob Murray spoke about the “regulatory rampage being waged, often illegally, by the Obama administration, and his supporters, on the United States coal industry.”
But as Emily Atkin pointed out in the New Republic, using regulations as a scapegoat for the decline of the coal industry does more to harm coal workers than help them — by selling coal miners the false narrative that coal’s decline was the result of regulations, not a fundamental change in the way the United States produces and uses energy, politicians and coal executives sell these miners false hope that a simple repeal can reverse their economic misfortunes.
Couple the negligible economic impact of repealing the Clean Power Plan with the economic and public health benefits of keeping the regulation in place, and the reality is that the facts don’t easily align with the case for repeal. But for Trump and Pruitt, the EPA’s hearing in Charleston wasn’t meant to reflect the reality of the debate over the Clean Power Plan — the hearing was a chance to manufacture a reality in which coal can once again power America’s energy landscape if only it is freed from the vice of burdensome regulations.
Take, for instance, the hearing’s location. When Pruitt announced that the only hearing would be held in West Virginia, he justified the location by arguing that it would allow the agency to hear from the people “most impacted by the CPP.” There is no question that coal miners would be overwhelmingly affected by the Clean Power Plan — the plan would have likely caused states to switch from more polluting sources of energy like coal to cleaner sources like natural gas or renewable energy, decreasing the demand for coal and hastening the fuel’s decline as a part of the American energy landscape.
But coal workers are far from the only group that would be affected by the regulation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently about 53,420 people employed by the coal mining industry. More than six million Americans, by contrast, live within a three-mile radius of a coal-fired power plant and are most at risk for the health problems associated with coal pollution. Low-income communities and communities of color are especially likely to live near a coal-fired power plant, with 68 percent of African Americans living within 30 miles of a coal plant.
Despite the hearing’s location, supporters of the Clean Power Plan, many of whom spoke to public health concerns related to the mining and burning of coal, largely outnumbered those in favor of repealing it. The format of the hearing, however, did much to minimize the impact of Clean Power Plan supporters — the first day of the hearing featured three separate rooms for testimony, only one of which was live-streamed to the public. The live-streamed room featured Murray’s testimony, as well as testimony from vocal Clean Power Plan opponents like West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. For at least the first half of the first day, testimony in the main room traded off between those opposing repeal and those cheering it on, making it seem like the numbers on either side were roughly even.
That facade began to crack on the second day, when testimony was heard in a single room. That testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the Clean Power Plan, and much of it came from activists sent by the NAACP to speak about the social justice implications of the regulation. Jacqui Patterson, director of the environmental and climate justice program at the NAACP, spoke about her father’s battle with pulmonary fibrosis, likely a result of environmental pollution. Linwood Jackson, president of the NAACP Delaware State Conference, talked about his experience with industrial pollution in his home state of Delaware. E.D. Mondaine, with the NAACP of Portland, Oregon, talked about his childhood growing up in a coal smog-choked St. Louis. Each one asked the EPA to keep the Clean Power Plan in place.
These are communities that would be disproportionately impacted by repealing the Clean Power Plan. But it’s difficult to believe their testimony will carry the same weight as Murray’s testimony, or the testimony of any one of the energy executives and coal industry lobbyists that attended the hearing.
Scott Pruitt spent years fighting the Clean Power Plan as Oklahoma’s attorney general; he called the regulation federal “coercion and commandeering” of energy policy. As EPA administrator, he’s required by administrative law to hold a public hearing on the repeal of a major regulation — but that does not mean that he is required to actually listen to the public. Coming from an EPA helmed by a notoriously anti-regulatory administrator, the public hearing in Charleston was little more than a bureaucratic show trial, held for appearances but unlikely to change an already-determined outcome.
No testimony throughout the entire two-day hearing embodied that contradiction as well as that of Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal worker who spent 41 years in the industry. He spoke about traveling over 1,300 miles to Denver, Colorado in 2014 to speak at a public hearing about the Clean Power Plan. He told the EPA that people in Appalachia were dying, and “literally dying for you to help.” Sturgill talked about his health problems associated with a life working in mines, from black lung to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He talked about the environmental devastation he has seen from extractive industry, and about the future he hopes for his children and grandchildren.
But he also expressed doubt that his testimony would break through to an administration that already seemed to have decided on a course of action long before holding a public hearing on the matter.
“Now to be realistic, do I really think that this administration cares what this old worn coal miner has to say? I don’t know,” Sturgill said. “I really doubt it. But I had to be here and as long as I can draw a breath I’m going to keep working to fight climate change and protect the land and country I love.”