Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, says Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s new proposal would change US energy landscape for the worse
DIMITRI LASCARI: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. The Trump Administration’s Department of Energy is run by former Texas Governor, Rick Perry, who vowed to abolish the department when he was a presidential candidate. Known as the Darling of the Fossil Fuel Industry, Perry just announced a request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to enact changes that would boost pricing for coal and nuclear power. This rule would require regional power markets to factor in certain characteristics of coal fire and nuclear power generation when they set prices for electricity. Some experts say this change could create the biggest change to electricity markets in the United States in decades. Rick Perry’s proposed rule came on the heels of an environmental success story. Washington State, nixed plans for a major coal export terminal last week, dealing a possible lethal blow to the project. Here to discuss all of this with us is Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. Mary Anne joins us today from Los Angeles. Welcome back, Mary Anne. MARY ANNE HITT: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you. DIMITRI LASCARI: First of all, Mary Anne, I’d like to talk about the Washington State Department of Ecology’s denial of the permit for the Millennium Bulk Terminal project. How would that export facility, if built, impact the public, the environment and now, in light of this denial what are the prospects for the terminal to actually be built? MARY ANNE HITT: Well, this was a big victory, not only because we stopped this particular project, and by we, I mean, a very big coalition of environmental groups, tribal partners, community leaders. It’s also an even bigger deal because it was the final coal export proposal in the Northwest that was still standing. About a decade ago, big companies like Peabody Coal were looking for new markets for coal coming out of Montana and Wyoming, which is our biggest remaining coal reserves because we’re using a lot less coal in the United States. Their plan was to build the six big coal export terminals in the Northwest to ship the coal to Asia. This marks the last of those six that was defeated by a grassroots network that’s really one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in my 20 years in the environmental movement. DIMITRI LASCARI: That’s quite a contrast to the attitude of the Trump administration to the coal industry. Let’s talk about this proposal that’s coming from Rick Perry and the Department of Energy to boost pricing for coal and nuclear power. Perry’s reported rationale for this rule is that wind and solar energy are intermittent sources of energy. In other words, that source of energy is only available when the sun shines and the wind blows, whereas coal and nuclear power make the electrical grid, according to Rick Perry, more reliable and resilient. Is there any truth to this, especially in light of advances we’ve seen and will continue to see in terms of electricity storage? MARY ANNE HITT: The idea that you have to have these big old fossil fuel plants around to keep the grid stable or reliable is really a pretty outdated notion. What we actually have found in recent years is it has been renewables that are keeping our grid stable because having more diverse sources of energy on the grid like wind and solar that can keep going, no matter what happens elsewhere on the grid has proven to be a real boon. Basically, the grid is this vast interconnected network of wires and other ways we transmit electricity that are managed by smart people. You could think of the air traffic control where there are folks who are really managing to make sure that if one power source goes down somewhere, we’re bringing up another power source somewhere else. Coal is actually not a great source for reliability because it takes a long time to fire up a coal plant. It takes a long time to power it back down, whereas wind and solar are a lot more nimble, but the point being, the real motive here by Secretary Perry is not about the reliability of the grid. It’s to prop up the fossil fuel industry, which is having trouble competing on the free market with renewables. That’s the real motivation here. We can have a safe, reliable grid powered with 100% renewable energy, but that is a threat to the bottom line of the fossil fuel companies, which are really what Rick Perry is trying to protect here. DIMITRI LASCARI: How would this rule do that? How does it boost the viability of coal and nuclear power? Do you think it’s ultimately going to affect the attractive… in economic perspective to the power markets? MARY ANNE HITT: Well, what they are proposing to do here is to claim that coal and nuclear are these special categories of power because they have this big fuel supply on-site, which means that they get, essentially, subsidized for continuing to exist. The Department of Energy has sent this over to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is an impartial entity that is actually supposed to be not picking winners and losers but just making the best resource decisions for the country. Again, the real motivation here is that coal and nuclear are having a very hard time competing with all the other sources of electricity out there, especially as we now have 10% or more of our nation’s electricity coming from renewables. In some parts of the country, they’re getting 30, 40 even 50% of their power from renewables on some days. Coal plants, they’re finding that when they try to sell their coal out into the marketplace, especially the open market, that no one wants to buy it because it’s too expensive, and there’s a lot more competition out there. Not every state is in one of these open markets, but then, these deregulated open markets, they basically want to force the customers to buy the electricity anyway. This notice from the Department of Energy has gone over to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC, and it’s a big deal. It’s definitely a big deal. I’m glad you’re following it and paying attention to it. It is definitely designed to prop up old polluting sources of energy that can no longer compete increasingly with renewables. We’re going to be working at the Sierra Club to stop this from ever getting over the finish line. It’s going to be a big focus of ours for sure. We definitely, all as Americans, need to be paying attention to it because we’re really at a tipping point when it comes to the economics and energy. Renewables are cheaper than coal in many, if not, all parts of the country. We shouldn’t be forcing people on their electric bills to pay to keep these old dirty polluting plants open which is essentially what this proposal would do. DIMITRI LASCARI: Let’s shift focus a little bit. We’ve been talking about the price to the consumer of electricity of coal and so forth, and how this might affect that. Let’s talk about other costs of coal usage, in particular, the health effects. We know, for example, that working in the health industry, Trump is always, or at least most of the time trying to justify his defense of the coal industry and this advancement of the coal industry’s agenda by reference to jobs for coal miners. We know that working in the coal mining industry has had historically quite significant adverse health effects. For example, black lung disease. When you compare the health profile for workers in the solar energy industry and the wind industry and the wind energy industry, other renewable, clean, renewable energy industries to what we see in the coal industry. I mean it Trump really cares about workers, shouldn’t he be taking into account the health effects? Aren’t working in those industries a much more attractive proposition for workers from a health perspective? MARY ANNE HITT: Well, I live in West Virginia. I’m in Los Angeles today, traveling for work, but I live in West Virginia and so I know all too well both the health and safety, dangers that come from coal mining but also how reliant those communities are on those jobs. Unfortunately, still in this country, we don’t have a lot of other economic opportunities for folks in coal mining areas. We haven’t invested in diversifying the economy in coal mining regions like we should, in my opinion. You know, when folks really only have, as you’ll hear that folks in the coal field say, the only options are mining coal or maybe flipping burgers. There’s not a lot of other economic options. They aren’t yet seeing those clean energy jobs in their area and that’s, I think, a very important work that we need to be doing as a country. I mean, we all have benefited from the sacrifices folks have made in the coal mines. We’ve had cheap electricity. We’ve had built a prosperous nation on the backs of those folks. Now, I think the best way to honor the sacrifice people have made in coal communities is to help diversify the economy as we transition away from coal. Definitely, there are more solar jobs. The solar jobs are not as big as a threat to the health of the workers. At the same time, if those jobs aren’t in the same places, that is cold comfort to folks in those mining communities. That’s where, I think, we really need to invest as a nation and helping to diversify the economy in coal communities. I think that’s the best way to honor that sacrifice that those folks have made on behalf of us all. DIMITRI LASCARI: Do we have reliable, are you aware of a reliable statistic study showing how many jobs are created per-dollar investment in renewable energy versus per-dollar investment in the coal industry? MARY ANNE HITT: Well, those numbers are out there. I can’t cite them off the top of my head, but I can say the number of jobs per unit of electricity produced, say kilowatt of electricity produced from coal versus renewable energy, renewable energy is creating many times over the jobs that coal and fossil fuels are. I mean, that’s in part because it takes a lot of folks to put solar panels up on all of those roofs and to get all those wind turbines built. Those are good-paying jobs. They are growing fast. We have about 50,000 coal miners in this country, and by contrast, there’s upwards of 300,000 renewable energy jobs in this country. It’s actually been one of the biggest sources of new job creation and economic growth in this country over the past decade. It’s just continuing to skyrocket. It’s creating a lot of economic opportunity in places that haven’t embraced wind and solar like Iowa, like California. The places that are hospitable to clean energy are really seeing a lot of job creation and economic opportunity as a result. DIMITRI LASCARI: Lastly, I want to talk to you a little bit about mountaintop removals. My understanding is the Trump administration has been trying to roll back regulations on mountaintop removal. Could you bring us up-to-date on his efforts in that regard and the possible implications? MARY ANNE HITT: Well, one of the first actions that Trump took when he became president was to repeal something called the Stream Protection Rule, which had been long opposed by coal mining companies, particularly in Appalachia because the stream protection rule prevented, it was intended to protect streams around coal mining sites. It never really went into effect. That was one of his first actions, which he did, with a lot of fanfare with a lot of coal folks and coal country politicians standing next to him. Most recently, they have instructed the halting of a study by the National Academy of Sciences that was really looking at the health of mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is still going on. It is still harming folks in Appalachia. There have been a handful, about a dozen peer-reviewed studies connecting the dots between local health problems like cancer, adverse effects and premature death, linking those to the mountaintop removal mines. The National Academy of Sciences was doing this survey of all that research to figure out what it all added up to and what were the gaps, and what could we definitively say about how to address this health crisis that we have in these coal communities around mountaintop removal sites. The study was halfway complete. They pulled the plug on the funding. It’s very frustrating and angering to folks living near these sites who are looking for answers and looking for solutions. I think it’s a very cynical move by the Trump administration and really shows that they’re not that worried about people in coal communities. They are just wanting to score political points by promising that coal is going to come back when it is not. If you go back to the news last week that the very last coal export terminal in the Northwest has had the plug pulled on it, you know, the economics aren’t adding up. In this country, we keep retiring coal plants. Foreign markets are not hungry for our coal. They are moving away from coal as well. What we need are solutions for the people living around these mountaintop removal sites, for public health, for economic development, for diversifying the economy. We’re not going backwards on no matter what Trump says when it comes to moving away from coal. I think it’s time, as a nation, to step up and be honest about that and start solving some of these problems instead of making empty promises to folks to score cheap political points, frankly. DIMITRI LASCARI: This has been Dimitri Lascaris, speaking to Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club about Donald Trump’s latest attempts to prop up the dying coal industry. Thank you very much for joining us today, Mary Anne. MARY ANNE HITT: It’s a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for having me. DIMITRI LASCARI: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.