Canary in the coal mine
August 22, 2017

The CEO of "the largest coal mining company in America" believes President Trump has broken his promises to miners, The Associated Press reports. Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray claims he told Trump that without the White House invoking an obscure emergency order to protect coal-fired power plants, he would have to lay off more than 6,500 miners. Murray allegedly convinced Trump, and Trump told his energy secretary, Rick Perry, three times that "I want this done."

The order allows "the Energy Department to temporarily intervene when the nation's electricity supply is threatened by an emergency such as war or natural disaster" by offering a temporary exemption of "power plants from obeying environmental laws," AP writes.

Murray argued that his biggest customer, the coal-burning FirstEnergy Solutions, faces bankruptcy. "As stated, disastrous consequences for President Trump, our electric power grid reliability, and tens of thousands of coal miners will result if this is not immediately done," Murray wrote in letters reviewed by AP.

The Trump administration ultimately rejected invoking the emergency order, deeming it an unnecessary response. "We look at the facts of each issue and consider the authorities we have to address them, but with respect to this particular case at this particular time, the White House and the Department of Energy are in agreement that the evidence does not warrant the use of this emergency authority," said an Energy Department spokeswoman.

Trump has long been considered the "savior" of the coal industry, although Paul Waldman writes for The Week that "the truth is that … coal jobs were mostly lost to automation and aren't coming back." Jeva Lange

January 15, 2016

On Friday, the White House is announcng that President Obama will stop issuing new permits for coal extraction in public lands, The New York Times reports, citing an administration official. The freeze on new mining leases will reportedly stay in place until the Interior Department reviews the permitting and leasing process, or until a future president reverses it, but leaving coal unmined would be another blow to an industry shrinking due to cheap natural gas and proposed regulations to curb greenhouse gasses from burning coal.

Currently about 40 percent of the coal mined in the U.S. is on federal lands, most of it in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Companies wouldn't lose their current leases, and halting new permits would only reduce the amount of coal production on federal lands after about 20 years, the administration official tells The Times. Environmental groups applauded the expected move; the coal industry did not. "It appears that they're going after the federal coal leasing program with the intention of keeping coal in the ground," said National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich. Peter Weber

April 30, 2014

The Obama administration has had some pretty serious defeats before the Supreme Court recently, but Tuesday wasn't one of those cases. In a 6-2 decision, the justices ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency can use the Clean Air Act to regulate pollution from one state crossing into another. (Justice Samuel Alito recused himself, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are the dissenters.) The decision overturns a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia circuit.

This upholding of the 2011 "good neighbor" rule is not just a win for the White House and EPA but also for states along the Eastern Seaboard who have spent decades breathing the smog and fumes sent over from Appalachia and the upper Midwest, where air quality rules are more lax. It's a loss for the coal industry, since coal-fired plants will have to install expensive equipment to "scrub" emissions of smog-causing pollutants or close down.

But the ruling is more than that — it provides, or hints at, maybe the biggest tool the Obama White House has to fight climate change. "It's a big win for the EPA, and not just because it has to do with this rule," Harvard environmental law expert Jody Freeman tells The New York Times. "It's the fact that it's setting the stage and creating momentum for what's to come." And what's to come is a broader use of the Clean Air Act to, well, clean our air of some heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. Peter Weber

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