(This piece was originally published on August 23, 2018 by the Terre Haute Tribune Star.)

While its role has diminished, coal is still big business in southwestern Indiana, and the industry is praising the Trump administration’s plan to roll back clean power standards.

But environmental groups strongly oppose a proposal put forth this week to replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan with the Trump EPA’s “Affordable Clean Energy” plan. Coal-burning utilities are reserving judgment. Economists say other factors are responsible for the decline in mining jobs.

Indiana is the nation’s eighth largest coal producer with 14 active mines, down from more than 40 a decade ago. Peabody’s Bear Run mine near Dugger in Sullivan County is the largest surface mine in the eastern U.S.

According to the National Mining Association, mining had a total annual impact on the state’s economy of $2.7 billion in 2015, the most recent year data is available.

The Supreme Court delayed implementation of the Obama plan to await the outcome of challenges in lower courts. The Indiana Coal Council says that if the Obama plan moves forward, it would raise electric rates, cost jobs and jeopardized the state’s status as the nation’s No. 1 manufacturer.

“The new proposal by the current administration … no longer imposes mandates that require states to switch fuels,” said council President Bruce Stevens, who lives near unincorporated Coalmont in Clay County.

The new EPA proposal also includes provisions for new source review, meaning utilities upgrading existing plants may not have to “do all the enhancements that cost money,” Stevens said.

The existing rule would cause “a significant loss of high-paying coal-related jobs in Indiana and elsewhere while providing no meaningful impact on the planet’s climate,” Stevens said.

Environmentalists respond

The Sierra Club’s Clean Coal Campaign came out swinging in response to the plan, which the EPA itself estimates could lead to 1,400 premature deaths by 2030.

“The Trump proposal is unlawful, unacceptable and won’t succeed at saving the coal industry,” Wendy Bredhold, senior campaign representative for Indiana and Kentucky, said in a statement.

A coal-fired power plant is retired about every 16 days in the U.S. and 270 such plants, more than half the nation’s total, are scheduled to retire or have retired “as a result of grassroots demand for clean energy and economic reality,” Bredhold said.

“The significant weakening of the Clean Power Plan under the Trump EPA provides far less incentive for utilities to modernize their electric power system,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, who also cites the EPA’s data about premature deaths.

Utilities examining plan

Electric utilities with coal-fired operations in the Wabash Valley are reserving judgment on the Trump administration plan, although Duke Energy has noted the potential for state oversight instead of a single nationwide standard.

“We’re still working our way through the proposal,” Shannon Brushe, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, said of the 300-page plan.

The changing climate is an important issue for Duke, Brushe said, noting the utility has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 31 percent since 2005 and has targeted a 40 percent reduction by 2030.

“We have long advocated for regulatory certainty in regulating CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, and appreciate EPA’s efforts to propose a regulation that fits within the agency’s statutory authority while recognizing the important role our states play in generation planning,” she said. “We look forward to reviewing the proposal in detail and actively participating in the regulatory process.”

Following the closing of its Wabash River Generating Station at Terre Haute, Duke has three coal-fired power plants in Indiana, including its Cayuga Station in Vermilion County. Hoosier Energy, a consortium of rural electric cooperatives, operates a plant near Merom in Sullivan County.

Claire Gregory, communications manager at Hoosier Energy, said, “We are determining the potential impact on Hoosier Energy and our 18 member systems.”

Economists’ views

It is unlikely the proposed change would have a huge impact on the coal industry, said Debra Israel, associate professor of economics at Indiana State University.

“The big impact … has not been environmental regulation, it has been the changing prices of alternate energy sources such as natural gas,” she said.

Israel, an environmental economist, calls the job savings claim “an unfortunate, disingenuous public relations campaign.”

Technology and changing energy sources will continue to result in fewer coal mining jobs, she said, expressing support for maintaining federal standards.

“The problem of carbon emissions is, of course, a global problem,” she said. “It doesn’t matter which state it comes from. If some states chose to be more lenient and not restrict their carbon emissions, it affects all of us.”

Economics professor Robert Guell, a colleague of Israel’s at Indiana State, also weighed in.

“Those who call themselves “Friends of Coal” have been fighting the Obama-era anti-coal regulations and, with Trump, they won,” he said. “The victory is Pyrrhic, though, because … natural gas is a vastly cleaner fuel that is nearly as cheap as coal. Coal was great but it’s time has come and gone.”

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