West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey stood in front of the state’s capitol to rally the roughly 120 coal miners and industry boosters gathered there.
“The fight against the unlawful Clean Power Plan started in Charleston, West Virginia,” Morrisey said, noting the state’s role in a legal challenge to the Obama-era rule.
The federal rule would have required states to find ways to ratchet down power plant emissions of greenhouse gases. However, the suit from West Virginia and 26 other states resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court placing a hold on the Clean Power Plan’s implementation. Then the Trump administration’s EPA announced in October that it would repeal the rule.
Morrisey, who is also a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, was happy to take some credit.
“We took action when no one thought that little old West Virginia could lead and accomplish things,” he told the crowd. “We’re gonna keep up that fight.”
Inside the capitol building the EPA was conducting its only scheduled public hearing on repealing the Clean Power Plan. Almost 300 signed up to speak, including many coal industry representatives and supporters. Many others, like Danielle Walker of Morgantown, West Virginia, came from grassroots organizations. Walker represented the Moms’ Clean Air Force.
“As a mom, I must stand up in support of the Clean Power Plan,” she said. “Climate change is real. It’s happening. And we need to take action as a nation.”
Stanley Sturgill, a retired miner from Harlan County, Kentucky, who now struggles with black lung also spoke against the EPA’s repeal. But he expressed skepticism about whether his comments will matter.
“Do I really think that this administration cares what this old coal miner has to say? I really doubt it,” he said.
Sturgill was among several speakers who said that they believed the EPA’s hearing was more about politics than policy. Many energy analysts and utility experts agree. They say a mix of rapidly developing technology, market forces, and public pressure will matter more than the fate of the Clean Power Plan, and the trend to cleaner power is likely to continue despite the Trump administration’s actions.
Gavin Bade reports on the electricity sector for Utility Dive. He authored a report this year based on a survey of utility leaders showing that companies shifting toward cleaner, more distributed energy are not likely to shift back, regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan under President Trump's EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
“It’s a good political story for Scott Pruitt leading the EPA to go to Charleston W.Va. and really slap around the Clean Power Plan and the Obama administration,” Bade said. “But that fact is that very little, if nothing, is changing in the power sector because of his repeal of the Clean Power Plan.”
Bade’s report predicts that due to competition from natural gas and other factors coal will continue to lose in the electric generation markets.
“No one with a straight face who knows what they’re talking about in the utility sector is going to tell you that a new coal plant is going to be built in this country. It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “And if it does I will eat my keyboard.”
The dominant trend has been a shift from coal to natural gas, something the Tennessee Valley Authority did this year at its iconic Paradise Fossil Plant in Kentucky. The massive coal-burning units that John Prine once sang about were largely replaced by a new natural gas facility. TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks said decisions like that have more to do with business factors than politics.
“You’re talking about fleet decisions made 5, 10, 15 years out. So most of the things that are in place right now in TVA’s territory, the closing of our coal plants, and bringing on gas plants, the nuclear plants, were all decisions that were made in 2011 and before,” he said. “What’s going on with TVA right now does not reflect the current political climate.”
Several analysts said the policies that are having an effect are at the state level. Georgetown University Law Center professor William Buzbee, who specializes in environmental law, explained that clean energy trends are accelerating largely because of state initiatives.
“In the clean energy sphere, the reason there has been so much progress has been due to state leadership in much of the country,” he said. “And that is likely to continue even if the federal government steps back from its leadership role.”
In the Ohio Valley region, only Ohio has binding goals for renewable or alternative energy. Kentucky and West Virginia considered such plans under Democratic governors but abandoned them under current Republican leadership. Lawmakers in West Virginia recently threw out the state’s existing alternative energy plan.
West Virginia native Walton Shepherd is an energy staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He’s been working with other states in the region like Virginia to adopt state versions of the Clean Power Plan.
“Soon after Donald Trump was elected president and we knew he was going to roll back federal action, the governor...decided we’re going to do something about climate change,” he said. “So they’ve decided to cap their emissions through a cap and invest program.”
Virginia also recently moved to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the country’s first mandatory program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using market mechanisms. The program, started in 2005 among northeastern states, uses a cap-and-trade system of emissions credits to limit emissions from the power sector and invest in efficiency and clean energy projects.
An Economic Edge
James Van Nostrand directs the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University. He said that investment in renewable energy not only improves the market for ratepayers, it also give states an edge when it comes to attracting new industry in an era when major corporations have their own goals for using renewable energy.
“To attract these businesses to your state you’re going to want to have 50 percent of your energy from renewable sources by 2020 or 2030,” Van Nostrand said. “Here in West Virginia it’s 95 percent coal fired. If we can’t meet the demand of these large employers for renewable energy, we’re not going to attract those jobs.”
Van Nostrand is part of a collaboration working to re-envision the economic future of West Virginia. He hopes politics don’t stand in the way of his group’s research and business findings.