In a sweeping executive action, President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth” that is aimed at undoing many of former President Obama’s regulations on climate change. Yet despite its rhetoric, Trump’s move is short-sighted and doomed to failure.
by Wayne de Luca
Trump surrounded himself with coal miners as he signed the executive order and declared, “Our administration is putting an end to the war on coal.” His executive order targets the Clean Power Plan and other Obama-era rules that took on coal as the biggest target in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. The president told the coal miners, “You’re going back to work.”
But this is simply not feasible on its face. Coal prices have plummeted as many countries have switched more to oil and gas power plants, or to renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, automation has taken away many of the jobs at coal mining sites. The New York Times estimates that coal jobs decreased from 240,000 in 1980 to 100,000 in 2015 while production increased 8% and worker productivity increased almost three-fold. Workers with shovels are simply not going back into the coal mines.
Coal mining is a particularly deadly industry. 1983 was the first year in the 20th century when less than 100 coal miners died in the United States, and even in 2016 there were 9 fatalities. Those miners who survive decades working in coal find their lives cut short by black lung, a disease that has seen a resurgence among miners in recent years.
There is a horrific irony in Trump’s statement that his coal order is about “rebuilding our beloved country.” Most coal mining is no longer done in deep dark mines; instead it is surface mining, which is quicker and more efficient. This means blasting away mountaintops – literally maiming the country he claims to love. More than 500 mountains in the Appalachian region (mostly in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee) have been destroyed by this method.
And Trump’s timing comes after a freakishly warm February and a record warm winter in many places across the United States. The climate emergency could not be more visible than in Washington DC, where the famous cherry blossoms bloomed in early March, only to see half of them die in a cold snap in the middle of the month. This new pattern is one of many that show how devastating the damage to the old rhythm of natural life has been.
Even the chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, Chad Holliday, said that Trump’s executive order will not change the fortunes of the coal industry. The price for extracting natural gas (methane) is simply too low compared to that of coal, and the US alone is not a sufficient market to change that calculation for energy producers. Unspoken is the participation of Obama and other Democrats in a massive push for methane over oil and coal, from regulation to infrastructure, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the United States.
New coal-fired plants are unlikely to spring up; the regulation around them is still extensive and methane is too cheap. More dangerous in Trump’s executive order is the overall trend of revising carbon-cutting rules downward. Given that the EPA is a complex bureaucracy with an intricate regulatory framework, this will take some doing, but the overall effect will mean more carbon emissions. Trump’s action, if successful will change the drop in carbon levels between 2005 and 2026 from 25% under Obama’s full plan to around 14%.
However, it must be understood that the Obama-era targets were drastically lower than those deemed necessary. Carbon emissions need to be cut by as much as 70% from their 2010 levels by 2050 in order to stop catastrophic climate change. The Paris Accords set a framework of cutting only 25% from the higher 2005 levels, a tremendous underachievement, but made with world leaders patting one another on the back over how enlightened and environmentalist they were. And Obama’s changes would only have hit that level under the most optimistic estimates.
In the capitalist world economy, the natural world can only be treated as a source of value waiting to be exploited. It is no coincidence that Trump launched his executive order by calling environmental regulations “the theft of American prosperity.” For capitalists, the fact that the natural world belongs to all of humanity present and future, is a monstrous act of theft. They see it as their world, parceled out at bargain rates to drive a capitalist class already drunk on its exorbitant wealth to further heights of corpulence. Dignity and respect are a personal insult.
Modern technology requires high levels of resource and mineral extraction. This frequently brings capital up against the lands and rights possessed by indigenous people, who are then painted as an obstacle to “progress.” We have seen this recently in North Dakota where the Dakota Access Pipeline cuts through the watershed used by the Standing Rock Sioux, who made a brave and defiant stand against this violation of their rights. A similar fight has been set up in Arizona, where Senator John McCain has pushed forward a plan to strip-mine for copper on the sacred land of the San Carlos Apache tribe. This is repeated on the international scale, as in Latin America where indigenous peoples’ land is used for mining the lithium of phone batteries but the people are left out from the rewards.
The timid measures Obama put forward are far too little and too late, attempts to burnish a legacy that would otherwise have been quite negative on the environment. Fracking and pipelines have both flourished under Democratic regimes; only mass resistance from the grassroots has slowed them down. Trump, of course, has doubled down on attacks such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, but these were already in the works long before him.
A solution can only come about by a conscious decision to focus our society and its wealth on a transition to sustainable energy and transportation. Creating, installing, and maintaining an entire electric system to run on sustainable sources (wind, solar, hydroelectric, and so on) and to overhaul the transportation system to use mass transit instead of automobiles would require an actual jobs program that was unparalleled in history. But it will never be undertaken by the parties that answer to the capitalist class, which is uninterested in such a project. Only a government that answers to workers and the oppressed would be able to lead such a dramatic shift in our entire way of life.
April is the month traditionally reserved for environmental concerns, and Trump has given it a clear agenda. The march on Washington on April 29 must be the biggest climate march yet, and it needs to say:
- Oppose big coal and big methane!
- No to Keystone XL, Dakota Access, and All Pipelines!
- No fracking, no mountain removal, no offshore drilling!
- For a massive jobs program in the transition to sustainable energy!