No one said the word “climate” on stage this week when President Trump signed an executive order aimed at scuttling the Clean Power Plan.
“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said, a dozen coal miners standing onstage beside him and several of his cabinet members. “We will put our miners back to work.”
But Trump’s order may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Undoing the Clean Power Plan could make it easier for power plants to keep burning coal instead of turning to less-polluting sources, as climate scientists say is urgently needed. So could ending a three-year moratorium on leasing coal from federal land, another action in Tuesday's executive order. But the main policies Trump unveiled would have little effect on the nation’s longstanding goal of relying less on oil or other energy from abroad.
Here are three ways this order will have less impact than the White House claims.
For starters, Trump’s executive order won’t mean much for the Northwest, where coal-burning power plants were already being shut faster than would have happened under Obama's Clean Power Plan.
Two coal plants in Centralia will close under an agreement with Washington state in 2020 and 2025. Eastern Oregon’s Boardman plant is set to close in 2020.
Puget Sound Energy reached an agreement with the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center last year to close down its two dirtiest coal plants, both in Montana, by July 1, 2022.
The company, which is privately owned by a group of Australian and Canadian investors, isn’t backing away from the deal. “We were actually ahead of the game, and that won’t change,” said spokesperson Grant Ringel with Puget Sound Energy in Bellevue.
Thanks to the large number of hydroelectric dams in the region, the Northwest relies on coal much less than the nation as a whole.
Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest utility, uses the most coal in Washington state, making it the state's worst climate polluter.
It gets 36 percent of the power it sells from hydropower and 35 percent from four coal-burning power plants it partially owns in Colstrip, Montana. Each of the coal plants emits about 1 million tons of carbon dioxide a year in service of PSE customers, according to the privately owned utility’s greenhouse gas inventory.
— Josh Boak (@joshboak) March 28, 2017
Energy experts say technology and other market forces, not federal policies, have eliminated coal-mining jobs and pushed America away from coal toward cleaner sources of energy.
“Natural gas is so abundant and so inexpensive that it is driving the economics of energy across the board,” Ringel said.
“As long as natural gas is cheaper than coal to produce electricity, it will capture larger and larger shares of the market, and that will drive CO2 emissions down,” he said.
While Trump blamed "job-killing regulations," coal jobs have been declining for decades as mines have automated and competing energy sources have fallen in price. NPR reports that the solar industry now employs twice as many Americans as the coal industry.
Trump and his cabinet members hit another talking point repeatedly: energy independence.
“Our ability to be energy independent and not be held hostage by foreign entities,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said, “delivers national security.”
“This is a great day for energy independence,” Vice President Mike Pence said.
But energy independence is a concern when it comes to oil, not electricity. The United States already gets 98 percent of its electricity domestically, with only about 2 percent coming from our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Less than 1 percent of U.S. electricity is generated using petroleum, domestic or otherwise.
“When usage goes up, we may call on Canada to fill a gap,” said spokesperson Ringel of Puget Sound Energy. He said while power does flow back and forth across the border, Canadian electricity is a minor part of the utility’s electricity mix.
In 2015, the United States imported about 24 percent of the petroleum it consumed, the lowest level since 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration. Canada was by far the largest source of foreign oil, followed by Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
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