Matthew Wagner, renewable energy director at DTE Energy (a Detroit based utility company), spoke to a meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists early this month and told them it makes no economic sense for utilities such as DTE to continue to invest in nuclear power or in coal, because market forces are very heavily in favor of natural gas on the one hand and renewables on the other.
This observation applies, he said, even to a state of the art coal-fired plant in Monroe, Michigan, one of the nation’s largest coal burners. DTE isn’t going to close it right down, but “at some point, it just won’t be cost-effective to run that any longer.”
This speech comes just as the administration of Donald Trump is firing up its own efforts to revive the coal industry. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is now considering a proposal that would require electric utilities such as DTE to draw upon coal and nuclear plants, even if there are less expensive alternatives available to them. This is called the grid resiliency pricing rule.
View from the Right
During the primary campaign in 2016, former Secretary Hillary Clinton notoriously said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of business.” She also said, “we don’t want to forget those people,” that is, those who would be laid off as a result. But that sounded patronizing and didn’t do much to lessen to sting of the “out of business” remark.
The context of the remark was a campaign in Ohio, and despite the furor the remark kicked up, Clinton won the Ohio primary. In November, though, she lost Ohio to Donald Trump. Indeed, a Cleveland paper called it “the most lopsided presidential election in the state in 28 years.” It is possible that it would have seemed more diplomatic for Clinton to have said, “we’re going to let a lot of coal mining companies go out of business,” [let instead of “put”] “but of course we won’t forget the people who will lose jobs in the process.” Unfortunately that would have had a laissez-faire sound to it that is likely absent from Ms Clinton’s political DNA.
Many on the right believe that the impression that the Obama administration was waging a “war on coal,” and that the Trump administration could save it, was integral to Trump’s victory.
Many are still fighting the war on that war. On October 18, 2017, Chuck Woolery tweeted this question, “Will memories of Hillary’s awful coal remarks sink Dems in Virginia’s Governor’s race?”
There are those on the right, though, who criticize the pro-coal stance of the administration as “corporate welfare.” Michael Tanner, at National Review, lectures his fellow conservatives specifically in the context of the coal industry that their criticisms of social welfare “would probably be better received if there was even half as much outrage directed at welfare for corporations.”
View from the Left
Meanwhile, Carolyn Kormann, writing in The New Yorker, makes the case that President Trump and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, are “conveniently ignoring … market signals in order to help out the fossil-fuel millionaires and billionaires who put them in office.”
The left does have an animus against coal, and it goes beyond the notion that coal cannot pay its own way, that it belongs at best to the past. For many on the left, coal is a class issue. Mother Jones ran a piece recently about Lambert’s Point, a lower-class and predominantly African-American neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia, which suffers from the coal dust that comes off the rail cars passing through, a dust that has “coated their community for as long as anyone can remember.”
The underlying contention is that in the eyes of the coal barons who supported the Trump campaign, the quality of life of the people at Lambert’s Point doesn’t matter. Whether that is true or not, it will surely continue to figure in debates going forward.