When Energy Secretary Rick Perry – who famously said he would abolish the Department of Energy, only to forget the name of the agency of which he’s now in charge – asked DOE to study how regulations are distorting electricity markets, the pro-renewables community expected the worst. Now that the study is out, it throws cold water on the claims made by both Republican leaders and mainstream environmental groups that Obama’s clean air policies have hurt dirty power plants.
Asked by Perry to investigate “the extent to which continued regulatory burdens…are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants,” DOE staff concluded flatly: “The biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation.”
While that might seem obvious to anyone working in the industry, it is particularly telling, coming from an Administration hell-bent on repealing “job-killing regulations.” Perry could have demanded a study more consistent with his boss’s campaign rhetoric. Instead, he got a more truthful assessment of market dynamics.
As a result, the report should place the GOP leadership in an awkward position, since even the Trump Administration can’t squarely blame federal regulatory overreach on job losses in the coal sector.
But the DOE study also throws a wet blanket on mainstream environmental groups who have dubiously claimed credit for coal plant closures. The Sierra Club brags about the 257 coal plants that have been retired since 2010:
But federal regulations championed by the Sierra Club haven’t made much of a dent. In fact, one study from Columbia University published in April found that only 3.5% of the coal industry’s decline was attributable to environmental or health regulations.
One study from Columbia University found that only 3.5% of the coal industry’s decline was attributable to environmental or health regulations.
In my view, both the GOP and mainstream environmental groups need to get real. Republicans and enviros both know that regulations have played a very small role in coal’s retreat. I don’t really expect Republicans in Congress to acknowledge this, what with our living in the post-truth age and all that. But for enviros, the self-deception is more concerning. Can they maintain a coherent political strategy built around the false notion that government intervention is making a difference in reducing coal’s role in the energy mix?
Since the dawn of elections, politicians have heaped praise on themselves when the economy does well and blamed opponents when it hasn’t. Environmental policy, it turns out, is no different. Environmentalists have claimed credit for coal plants going offline. That may be innocent enough. But now that Trump is in the White House, the Republicans control Congress and we’re on defense, mainstream environmental groups should have the humility to acknowledge the small role they’ve played. After all, it would be a shame to spend precious resources defending very minor policies simply because we didn’t like admitting that Marcellus shale gas was a game-changer. §