It was one of Donald Trump’s biggest campaign rally cries when he was running for president – ending what he called the “war on coal.”
Now his EPA director Scott Pruitt says that’s exactly what the administration is doing by rolling back the Clean Power Plan, something both opponents and supporters will have a huge impact on Ohio.
The two-year-old plan required power plants to reduce their carbon emissions. Each state had a different set of standards based on research by the Obama Administration before it implemented the CPP.
But Republican Rep. Andy Thompson, who represents a district where most of Ohio’s coal is mined, says the industry already faces many hurdles, such as the proliferation of natural gas and the market turning away from coal. So Thompson remarks that adding government regulation was a step too far.
“The Obama Administration as a whole was, ‘We don’t like coal, we don’t want more coal to be mined, we don’t want more coal to be burned,’ so in every way that they could they made life difficult for the coal industry,” Thompson says. “This gives them at least a fair shake and an opportunity to see if coal can turn things around.”
This federal plan was crucial to curbing the cause of climate change, according to environmental groups.
“The Trump Administration has really just put the health, safety and security of all Ohioans, really all of us, at risk of from worsening air pollution that will result of this action,” says Melanie Houston of the Ohio Environmental Council.
Houston argues that the country needs a nationwide standard for carbon emissions.
“To really set the bar and set the base for what actions these states need to take, so states can go above and beyond, but the federal government needs to set that level playing field for all of the states,” Houston says.
Pruitt has been a vocal opponent to the Clean Power Plan since before his post with the EPA. When he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA to block the plan.
Ohio joined that lawsuit. As Thompson put it, the state was looking into how it could comply with the plan. But the Ohio EPA said they didn’t believe the federal government had the authority.
“We didn’t want to put our neck in the noose,” Thompson said. “We didn’t want to somehow bless this process under duress, under stress and kind of a little bit under threat.”
Many environmental groups are looking to mount a legal challenge if the EPA goes through with repealing the CPP. That’s something Thompson says has worked in the past but not this time.
“The sue and settle or the sue and don’t settle is something that the environmental left has been using for a long, long time,” Thompson says.
“Sue and settle” is an often-used conservative talking point. It suggests that the EPA would collude with environmental groups in order to settle lawsuits in an attempt to carry out policy they wanted anyway.
“It’s a made-up conspiracy theory," said David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
He’s one of the leaders ready to take the EPA to court if they water down the Clean Power Plan.
“No, the reason the government settles those cases is that if they litigate them, they’d just lose,” Doniger says.
Doniger is confident opponents could win a legal argument because the U.S. EPA is obligated to protect the environment under the Clean Air Act.
But Thompson counters that the coal industry gets a bad rap when it comes to climate issues.
“This notion that somehow it is still the Wild West, it’s not,” Thompson says. “They do an excellent job of dealing with environmental concerns and dealing with past environmental concerns.”
Whether this roll back ends the so-called “war on coal” remains to be seen. But there’s no sign that this could actually resurrect the coal industry, which has been declining in Ohio.
More mining has moved across state lines to places like West Virginia. Operating coal plants in Ohio gets expensive, and they have struggled to compete in the utilities market.