Energy & Environment

Goodbye, Clean Power Plan

President Donald Trump shakes hands with coal miner Michael Nelson at the White House in Washington, D.C., February 16, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The Clean Power Plan is headed for the crematorium. Good riddance.

CPP was the textbook example of the Obama administration’s attempt to supplant Congress by interpreting the administrative state’s regulatory scope as effectively unlimited. Prior to CPP, the Environmental Protection Agency had regulated the emissions of electricity-generating plants individually to ensure that they did not exceed pollution limits. The Obama administration ran wild with its regulatory ambitions, using CPP to impose renewable-energy quotas on the states and adopting through administrative fiat limits on carbon dioxide emissions that Congress has repeatedly declined to impose. Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant as traditionally understood — it is what human beings exhale — but it is a greenhouse gas, and global warming is an obsession of contemporary progressives.

The Supreme Court, understanding the radical expansion of executive power embodied in CPP, took the unusual step of delaying its implementation so legal issues could be worked out (a process that Trump’s intervention of course will end). Donald Trump ran for president promising to lighten the regulatory load on the coal industry, and once he was elected, his administration set about doing so. President Barack Obama was fond of justifying his expansive interpretation of presidential powers with two words: “I won.” Well, guess who else won.

The Democrats are, predictably, apoplectic. But if the Democrats want the United States to adopt a national policy of severely restricting carbon dioxide emissions as part of an international crusade against global warming, then they should write up a proposal, put it to a vote, and make their case to the voters. At the moment, the Republican party controls the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and about two-thirds of all state and local offices. Perhaps it is the case that the electorate that made that happen is secretly crying out for a cumbrous new regulatory burden for the American energy sector and the American economy at large. Perhaps not.

Setting aside the question of carbon dioxide, an increase in the use of coal for electricity production could increase emissions of genuine pollutants, such as the particulates that are linked in studies to heart and lung disease. The EPA already has ample statutory authority to regulate these emissions without imposing a nationwide global-warming scheme without congressional authorization. That statutory authority should be used, judiciously. It is the duty of the executive branch to enforce the laws that Congress passes, not to try to position itself above Congress as a super-legislature. We have three separate branches of government for a reason.

President Trump has offered himself as coal’s savior, just as President Obama offered himself as its reckoning. The key difference between the two is that the Obama administration created expansive new executive powers, while the Trump administration is putting the presidency back in its constitutional box.

Coal country will appreciate Trump’s gesture, certainly. But this move, welcome on constitutional grounds, probably will not be sufficient to revitalize the ailing coal industry. It has suffered under heavy regulatory burdens, but in the long term what it suffers from is displacement by cheap and relatively clean natural gas. It is very likely that the United States will continue to use less coal to generate electricity — thanks to fracking, which has liberated stores of hydrocarbons once thought to be unusable. That presents a problem for the high priests of green, who can’t decide whether they hate coal more or fracking. We are content to let the market sort that out.

The Trump administration has made American dominance in energy production a top-level goal. Fortunately, what needs to be done to make that happen mainly is to eliminate — or, if that is too much, to minimize — government interference in the organic economic development of a nation that happens to be richly endowed with energy resources.

All energy production — and all energy consumption — involves externalities. There is no “clean” energy: not wind, not solar, not unicorn juice. There are always trade-offs. Negotiating those trade-offs as a matter of national policy is a matter for the democratically accountable members of the national legislature, not for EPA lifers, however well-intentioned they may be.

If the Democrats want to campaign on hamstringing the U.S. economy to implement a plan that would prevent an estimated 0.0015 degree of global warming — a century hence — they are welcome to it.

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The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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