Wyoming’s beleaguered coal industry received welcome news last week when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally rolled out the Affordable Clean Energy rule (ACE). The effects were immediate and dramatic.
In anticipation of the EPA rule, PacifiCorp’s vice president of resource planning, Rick Link, announced that coal-fired generators near Kemmerer and Rock Springs should receive a lease on life. A report released in April slated two units at its Naughton power plant and two at the Jim Bridger plant to be shuttered by 2022. Now the utility is whistling a different tune. The Naughton units may remain in operation until 2025 and the Bridger units could still be producing power in 2032.
While PacifiCorp’s announcement was not formally linked to the EPA’s new rule, it’s not hard to connect the dots. The ACE is the culmination of more than two years of work to replace the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that was rolled out in 2015 but ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since then, America’s energy sector has been forced to operate in a regulatory limbo. The CPP was designed not to reduce the emissions coming from existing coal-fired generators, but to shut them down. It burdened these units with unreachable goals and crippling regulations.
On the one hand, the Supreme Court stayed enforcement of the rule. On the other hand, EPA’s slow walking a new rule meant that the energy industry was operating under the sword of Damocles. The threat was temporarily suspended, but only by a thread.
This unstable environment discouraged investors from spending money on units that could be shuttered at the wave of a bureaucratic hand. As a result, what could not be accomplished through constitutional means was happening nonetheless through a market instability manufactured by the EPA.
When the government deliberately puts its thumb on the scale to discourage investment in an industry, it sets off a chain reaction. Time marches on and equipment needs either to be replaced or repaired. Once the EPA nudged the energy sector away from investing in the upkeep of coal-fired generators, it would only be a matter of time before they became unusable.
Power plants, however, are not islands of industry randomly scattered throughout the countryside. The Naughton and Jim Bridger plants were built in the middle of nowhere because coal was found buried in the middle of nowhere. When the EPA destabilized electricity producers, it had an immediate effect on the mines that fuel them.
A power plant may be able to adapt to an unstable regulatory environment by investing in natural gas generators and in the pipeline infrastructure to keep them producing. But what is the mine supposed to do when it faces the sudden loss of more than half its customer base? And when two mines within 100 miles suddenly have a glut of coal that they are desperately trying to sell, what happens to the market price of coal that keeps every other mine operating above its thin profit margin?
Bean counters in Washington may think that the mine could simply lay off half of its employees. But real life doesn’t work that way. Any retailer knows that a loss of half her customer base would not simply reduce profit by half. It would likely bankrupt the store. So, also, the mine.
How does one find investors willing to operate a mine that may lose half its customer base in the next three years? The bankruptcy drama in Kemmerer suggests that it is easier said than done. And that translates to people, real people.
Jobs are on the line. Pensions are on the line. House payments and truck payments don’t simply stop when a miner loses his job or has his work hours cut. The bankruptcy of mines translates to the bankruptcy of families. All of this means that the survival of local schools, the employment of teachers, the viability of small businesses, churches and a thousand other things are destabilized.
I am not so naïve as to blame every local concern on national politics. Whenever there is a threat to a community and a way of life, there is plenty of blame to go around. We all contribute to the problem in our own way. Those problems are only exacerbated when neighbors hate neighbors because of political opinion.
Still, if it is true that everyone shares the blame, it would be equally naïve to close a blind eye to the EPA’s role in Wyoming’s problems. Thankfully, that was corrected last Wednesday. With that correction, we are already seeing a new lease on life for four coal-fired generators and for the communities that have built up around them.
Of course, the EPA itself is neither the savior nor the villain. Neither is any single administrator or administration. The issue, rather, is an idea. On Dec. 7, 2009, the EPA classified CO2 as a “dangerous pollutant.”
Up until that point, EPA policy had been concerned with cleaning unnatural chemicals and particulates from industrial emissions. Smog and carbon monoxide are unnatural byproducts of industrialization. These are harmful to the environment and harmful to humans. While no car can run and no power plant can make energy without emitting some of these harmful byproducts, we have been wildly successful in reducing them to negligible levels.
But CO2, water vapor and other greenhouse gasses are naturally occurring. CO2, in particular, is the natural byproduct of breathing. All people, all animals, even bugs produce CO2. While filters and efficient burning can reduce real pollutants, CO2 and water are the pure products of any fire — from natural gas to wood, to coal. In fact, they are the natural byproducts of human life itself.
Classifying CO2 as a pollutant, gives a lever to government to regulate all of human life. Should the EPA succeed in shutting down every coal-fired generator and every coal mine in Wyoming, there is no reason on earth why it wouldn’t go on to shut down every natural-gas-fired generator and every oil well in Wyoming.
That’s the simple reality of classifying CO2 as a “dangerous pollutant.” That’s the elephant in the room. That’s why our elected representatives in congress have refused to pass a law designating CO2 as a pollutant. That’s why China, the biggest industrialized nation in the world, refuses to designate CO2 as a pollutant.
Nevertheless, last Wednesday’s ACE rule was met by a hue and cry from many politicians and radical groups claiming that “settled science” has proven CO2 to be a dangerous pollutant. Nancy Pelosi’s statement was typically shrill. She called the ACE a “dirty-power scam,” as though it were about dumping smoke into our atmosphere and toxins into our lakes.
It’s time to dial back the rhetoric and have a real conversation. We, as a community and state, have just had a glimpse — and only a glimpse — of the real-life consequences of designating CO2 as a pollutant. My beloved town of Kemmerer has had a brush with becoming a ghost town — and we may not be out of the woods yet.
The main reason that the Supreme Court blocked the CPP in the first place is because it found the EPA had exceeded its authority. Congress authorized the EPA to clean the environment, not to set America’s energy policy. Now that the power to set policy has been returned to the states, it’s time all of us had a serious and informed conversation about CO2.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.