Trump’s War for Coal Raises Risks

Exclusive: President Trump’s war for coal is threatening progress on alternative energy while creating hazards both in the weather effects from global warming and in health risks from breathing dirty air, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

When Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt proudly declared “The war against coal is over,” as part of his Oct. 9 announcement of plans to repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, he neglected to mention the thousands of Americans whose lives will be sacrificed so coal producers and utilities can declare victory in the nation’s environmental wars.

President Trump delivers statement about damage from Hurricane Irma in Fort Myers, Florida, on Sept. 14, 2017. (Screenshot from

As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement, “Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt will go down in infamy for launching one of the most egregious attacks ever on public health, our climate, and the safety of every community in the United States. He’s proposing to throw out a plan that would prevent thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of childhood asthma attacks every year.”

Coal burning produces deadly particulates, toxic metals, and other pollutants that have a ruinous effect on public health, even with current controls on smokestack emissions. A 2015 analysis by the EPA of the Clean Power Plan, which proposed flexible measures to curb carbon pollution from power plants across the country, noted that associated cuts to smog and soot would “bring major health benefits for American families.”

By 2030, when its provisions fully kicked in, the plan would result in “up to 3,600 fewer premature deaths; 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children; 1,700 fewer hospital admissions; and avoiding 300,000 missed days of school and work.”

Those numbers reflected only the projected impact of the Clean Power Plan, not the total impact of coal burning. Carnegie Mellon professor Jay Apt recently cited a vast scientific literature that supports estimates of premature deaths from U.S. power plant emissions at between 7,500 and 52,000 annually — roughly comparable to total fatalities from car crashes.

Switching electric utilities completely from coal to natural gas would slash those emissions and lower human health costs by upward of $50 billion a year, Apt and a team of fellow scientists calculated in a 2016 paper.

That process is already underway for economic reasons. Thanks to cheap natural gas prices, nearly half of U.S. coal-fired power plants have shut down or announced plans to retire in recent years—including nearly a dozen since Trump took office.

A recent study issued by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University noted, “A surge in US natural gas production due to the shale revolution has driven down prices and made coal increasingly uncompetitive in US electricity markets. Coal has also faced growing competition from renewable energy, with solar costs falling 85 percent between 2008 and 2016 and wind costs falling 36 percent.”

Unless those basic economic facts change, it declared, “US coal consumption will continue its decline despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama-era regulations.”

War on Renewable Energy

This March, for the first time ever, wind and solar produced 10 percent of all electricity in the United States, reflecting their growing challenge to coal and their rapidly declining cost. The Trump administration is looking for ways to reverse that trend, even if that means ending the tremendous job boom in alternative energy industries.

A ‘wind farm” with wind turbines.

At EPA, besides attempting to kill the Clean Power Plan, Trump apparently hopes to roll back costly regulations of mercury emissions and coal ash from power plants by appointing former coal company lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to serve as deputy administrator of the agency.

EPA’s Pruitt has also publicly urged repeal of federal tax credits for wind and solar power — without noting that they are scheduled to disappear by 2020 and 2022, respectively, and without acknowledging that extensive federal subsidies for coal for years tilted the playing field in favor of fossil fuels. (President Trump is said by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice to be “really interested” in providing a lavish new federal subsidy for Appalachian coal.)

Meanwhile, over at the Department of Energy, the White House has asked for cuts of nearly 70 percent in the department’s programs for renewable energy and energy efficiency, including its much-acclaimed advanced research program.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry last month asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to ram through new economic regulations favoring ailing coal and nuclear plants. His transparent attempt to interfere with energy markets ran into determined opposition not only from wind and solar representatives, but members of the gas industry. One of Trump’s own appointees to FERC objected, saying “I did not sign up to go blow up the markets.”

The Interior Department has weighed in, too, with Secretary Ryan Zinke declaring during National Clean Energy Week that solar companies should stop looking for sites to produce energy on federal lands. To date, his department has approved only one solar project, compared to the 60 approved by the Obama administration over eight years.

Zinke’s anti-solar stance conflicts with the opinion of two-thirds of adult Americans, who believe the United States should give priority to renewable energy over fossil fuels.

Perhaps the Trump administration’s biggest threat to renewable energy is its potential support for a new ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission, which found that cheap Chinese solar panels have hurt U.S.-based manufacturers. The Solar Energy Industry Association, the main industry lobby, has decried the ruling and warned that punitive tariffs would raise panel prices, slam the breaks on solar adoption, and cost nearly 90,000 U.S. jobs.

The ruling was also opposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation, at least two Republican governors, and a group of retired military energy experts.

“But for Trump,” observed the Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni, “the commission’s decision presents a rare opportunity for him to penalize two of his favorite punching bags — China and Mexico, which was also named in the ITC ruling . . . — without Congress getting in the way.” Just as important, it would allow Trump to land another blow for the coal industry.

By waging war against renewable energy industry, the Trump administration isn’t just putting hundreds of thousands of good jobs at risk. In the long run, it is jeopardizing efforts to slow the pace of global warming, which has contributed to the vast scale and devastation of recent natural disasters ranging from hurricanes to fires.

Just as significant, the administration threatens to condemn to misery or death thousands of Americans who will be forced to breathe dirtier air in order to line the pockets of Trump’s coal-industry supporters. By fighting for coal, Trump is waging war on our very lives.

Jonathan Marshall is a frequent contributor to


20 comments for “Trump’s War for Coal Raises Risks

  1. Piotr Berman
    October 16, 2017 at 15:21

    SteveK9: very good point. The visceral opposition to nuclear power and bending facts that is associated with it is as scientific as opposition to the fact of global warming. Note to Alfred from Melbourne: “global warming” means that the globe warms on the average, while the changes in sea currents etc. may have opposite effect in some spots. The warming of Arctic is perhaps the strongest. Antarctic is so cold that the global warming effects may have some local reverse consequences. For example, at lowest part of the scale, increases of water temperature make it more dense, rather than less dense. Episodes of thawing may decrease the albedo rather than increase.

    Another reason why promoting coal is so insane as an American policy. Now China is by far the largest and dirtiest coal producer, 3-4 times larger than USA. The way it works is that part of economic decisions is made on provincial level, and many poor provinces invested many billions in new coal plants and tolerate very low environmental and labor standards in coal production, in that way they improved employment with bad health consequences. The central government avoids conflict with provinces that could lead to unemployment and unrest so it balances using its mercantilistic tools, thus China now leads in LED bulbs, making solar panels, wind generators etc. But it is not like this “clean energy” purifies billions of tons of dirt.

    USA could actually use some support for domestic manufacturing, and “dirt duty” could be a reasonable approach. Plus some support to domestic manufacturing, including solar panels, calculated in such a way that the prices would eventually be lower (highly automated production, economies of scale, and last but not least, better technology that USA should be capable of). In the same time, we have so many possible “negawattes” that domestic energy market is stables. If we succeed with more jobs in coal, we decrease the employment in shale gas — already very slumped.

    Lastly, investment in energy have very long time scale, so an aberrant policy can stop investments in negatively affected sectors and yet fail to spur investments in the sectors that would theoretically benefit.

  2. SteveK9
    October 16, 2017 at 14:21

    If ‘environmentalists’ would stop opposing nuclear power, we could make progress. That is how you eliminate coal, and produce tiny amounts of waste, that are completely under control (unlike the megatons coal puts directly into the atmosphere). Of course there are a collection of important environmentalists that get it … James Hansen, Stewart Brand come to mind and there are others. They remind me of the ‘Veteran Intelligence Professionals ….’ , lonely rational voices, crying in the wilderness.

    • Zachary Smith
      October 17, 2017 at 16:29

      Hansen is a good guy in most ways, but he’s a bit of an idiot for pushing nuclear power.

      Stewart Brand? He seems to have gotten gullible in his old age. If he was keeping up he’d be on the photovoltaics bandwagon.


  3. Alfred (Melbourne)
    October 15, 2017 at 05:51

    Please be so kind as to look at the “climate change” data. Here, in Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology has been caught cheating. The temperate in Victoria is no different than 100 years ago.

    BTW, most of the world’s ocean water is in the southern hemisphere – and that is where the heat gets released from or stored.

    “Vindicated: Bureau acknowledges limits set on how cold temperatures can be recorded”

  4. tina
    October 15, 2017 at 01:37

    I am not too concerned. The United States of America these days, seems to be moving in a retrograde fashion. You know, some people move ahead, some stay where they are , and some just deteriorate. I think we are in the latter mode. Maybe I cannot do anything to prevent the inevitable, but at least I can say with clear conscience, I am not part of this country’s self-destruction.

  5. Sam F
    October 14, 2017 at 13:41

    It is sad to see progress and especially research in renewable energy sources rolled back by mere cynical bullies in power. If they were sensible, they would appeal to their supporters by leering and jeering the sometimes merely fashionable words of renewables advocates, and then make strong but sensible moves in that direction.

    As I recall, the US has four times the costs of high-cost Germany for local solar power due to markups, our main product. If that could be eliminated we would be way ahead.

  6. susan mullen
    October 13, 2017 at 20:20

    Could readers please have some background on this author, Jonathan Marshall other than he’s a frequent contributor? Has he been connected in any way with climate endeavors, has he done work or taken money from entities with climate interests? Thanks.

    • Jonathan Marshall
      October 13, 2017 at 20:32

      Susan, I worked for several years for Pacific Gas and Electric Company. There, among other jobs, I authored a blog on clean energy, climate change, and the environment. I am no longer employed by the company and my writing is in no way dependent on it.

      • dfc
        October 14, 2017 at 19:23

        Hi Jonathan, you seem to be “in the know” on this stuff. With Trump in office we should expect this warming to vastly accelerate. So, I am trying to get hold of a real estate agent in Antarctica for a purchase:

        Climate change study predicts refugees fleeing into Antarctica

        Climate change will force refugees to move to Antarctica by 2030, researchers have predicted. Refugees are expected to move to Antarctica because of the rising temperatures that will see the population of the continent increase to 3.5 million people by 2040.

        Do you have any leads? With Trump pulling out of Paris we should be expecting a lot more than just 3.5 million migrants, so this will become the next global real estate bonanza. IMHO

  7. Sam F
    October 13, 2017 at 17:57

    It would be good to see some studies on the temporary value of increasing US use of coal and fracking to gain independence from oil producing nations. But that motive would suggest reducing the adverse environmental effects, and pushing solar and wind power to compete with foreign sources rather than cutting imports and subsidies.

    The coal/fracking push might be intended to permit a more humane Mideast policy, or merely to scare oil producers into moderating prices when Russia and KSA et al reduce competition. Peace with Iran and Russia might work better there. If we have such a surplus of LNG as to supply the EU by blocking Russian pipelines, one wonders why we don’t use it here.

  8. Sally Snyder
    October 13, 2017 at 14:51

    Here’s an article that looks at the surprising viewpoint of Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, on global warming and the implementation of a carbon tax when he was still CEO of ExxonMobil:

    His viewpoint in 2009 is in sharp contrast to what Donald Trump appears to believe about both issues.

  9. mike k
    October 13, 2017 at 14:51

    Trump is a vicious killer. Everything he does is anti-life.

  10. Joe Tedesky
    October 13, 2017 at 14:32

    In my estimation there were always but two roads to take in order to get the USA off of it’s desires to keep it’s edge over world domination. The high road, was where the USA would eagerly join the other nations of the world, and agree on a bi-lateral nation system of respecting each other’s national sovereignty, and work together on worldwide problems together. The low road, is the one Trump choose for the USA to take. This is where the USA disengages itself from almost everything, and anything, and especially put an end to whatever it was Obama and Kerry had laid down. Vindictive is what Trump is all about, and I’m afraid that no matter what his rhetoric sounds like to his large enthusiastic crowds in fly over America, Trump’s goals to be attained by him have nothing to do with the anxious Americans who voted for him are. America’s best chance to be great again, will be determined upon how America rebuilds itself after it’s great fall from world hegemony….it might turn out to be a good thing, if we Americans in the end can unite together enough to make America a reborn Democratic nation which is truly functioning for the people, and by the people.

    • Sam F
      October 13, 2017 at 18:12

      Yes, the US could prepare for and soften that fall, if we could restore democracy.
      It is in the nature of business bullies to demand supremacy, so oligarchy must fall first.
      If the educated felt angry enough before the impoverished, the fall could be softened.
      Perhaps the moral bankruptcy of unregulated economic power ensures its violent fall.
      Perhaps unregulated market forces must lead to suffering and uncontrolled violence.

      • Joe Tedesky
        October 14, 2017 at 00:31

        Yes Sam a society who lacks a sense of respect for it’s commons, is a country which has loss it’s moral values. Sadly there are many who are all but aroused by the red meat which our beloved Commander and Mouth spits out. I mean Sam, America sounds mean.

        I often wonder if most Americans don’t feel a little like us on this comment board. Could it be, the filtering of the public’s response is configured to look like everyone is on board with whatever nonsense the establishment is selling, so we individuals think it only us meaning me? In my mind it’s conceivable a large media could control this kind of opinion poll fixing. Oh well. Take it easy Sam. Joe

    • rosemerry
      October 14, 2017 at 15:55

      Joe, this seems to be exactly correct. As well as his lack of knowledge of science, history and most other topics, his spitefulness and determination to destroy the rights (such as they are) for the poorer people in his country and his sinking to the lowest lies and methods to ensure conflict in every aspect of life in the USA and outside, he has already ruined any standing the USA will now have in the “international community”. With Israel and Saudi Arabia as the closest allies in his quest for greatness, he is each day ensuring the destruction of peace for the foreseeable future.

      • Joe Tedesky
        October 14, 2017 at 17:08

        Everything you mentioned rosemary about Trump is what we viewers have watched of him for over the last forty years. If it begins with the world ‘controversy’ then Donald Trump mustn’t be too far behind. This tv reality star president of our loves being in the center of the storm, because that’s where the upward tick of the ratings will go. Trump can’t even imagine ever being associated to the word humble.

        Although Trump’s talent for making the news is notable as a tv personality, his bombastic mannerisms has no comfortable place to be found in the White House. I would applaud his transparency if it were I could rely on Trump’s telling the truth. Trump is capable of being a contradiction all in one sentence. Now, think about that, and that describes to how remarkable he really is. Except an alligator eating a hippo is remarkable too, but it’s an unbelievable ugly sight at that.

        Glad we see eye to eye rosemary on our president’s nature. Joe

    • Peter Loeb
      October 17, 2017 at 07:53


      It is all too common for analysts to seek to persuade based on the
      best of all possible worlds aka what is “good” for our survival. The facts
      are true enough (although the Paris agreement was weak in many
      respects in order to achieve compromise).

      The point is that the claim to Trump’s base high wages as a coal miner
      is pure campaign rhetoric. Such rhetoric is not the sole property
      of Donald Trump.

      The fact is that in 21rst century economics, wealth does not gladly
      invest in “the real economy”, in manufacturing that stands little to
      no chance of making quick profits, that offers no “liquid” markets
      at great (most often tax free) rates.

      Such opportunities are today readily available in speculation.
      Jack Rasmus has described how the system actually works. It does
      not favor investment in “the real economy” at all. How it
      works is described by Rasmus in basic books such as
      There are many factors involved. i(In fact the real economy
      seeks to link itself with the speculation as its way of
      making large and quick profits.

      On a political level, it will be interesting to see how the
      “Trump base” responds when the economic lunacy
      results in more wealth for the wealthy and none
      for the worker. Perhaps there will be a special photo-op
      factory for campaign purposes.

      As J.M. Keynes famously remarked, “in the long run
      we will all die.”

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

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