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Trump administration to replace Clean Power Plan with ‘dirty power plan’

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

President Donald Trump claimed in September that he did away with the Clean Power Plan, one of the Obama administration’s most ambitious efforts for tackling climate change. The plan was the first to set a limit on carbon pollution from existing power plants. Dispensing with the regulation, Trump told a rally in Alabama, was simple as, “boom, gone.”

Of course the reality is more complicated. Because the Clean Power Plan is a finalized regulation from the EPA, the agency also has to put forward its justification for repealing it. During an appearance on Monday at the coal-mining town of Hazard, Kentucky, administrator Scott Pruitt announced his plans to sign the draft proposal to repeal the 2015 climate rule.

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“The war on coal is over,” Pruitt said. “Tomorrow in Washington, D.C., I will be signing a proposed rule to roll back the Clean Power Plan. No better place to make that announcement than Hazard, Kentucky.”

The Clean Power Plan was crafted to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants 32 percent by 2030, by having states devise their own proposals for creating a pollution-cutting mix of renewables, gas, nuclear, and energy efficiency. But the Supreme Court stayed the rule in 2015, so its implementation stalled while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard the case brought by 26 states and coal companies like Murray Energy, which is owned by Trump donor Bob Murray. So far, the court hasn’t ruled, waiting to see what the Trump administration does next.

Another wrinkle is that the Trump administration eventually has to do something because it technically can’t ignore the EPA’s determination that greenhouse gases endanger public health, a finding compelled by a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2007. If they do nothing, they still risk lawsuits for not enforcing the Clean Air Act.

As I reported in August:

Whatever the administration decides, it will need to publish a written justification, which will be scrutinized by environmental groups in a likely lawsuit on the decision. The administration faces a similar quandary that plagued the GOP during the health care fight: Repeal the Clean Power Plan outright, or replace it with a shell of a rule?

According to a leaked draft of the EPA’s proposal, the Trump administration is choosing the first option — but with a twist. The 43-page document lays out the reasoning for repealing the rule by stressing the costs of implementation without factoring in the benefits from air pollution reduction and its contribution to combating climate change. The public is also invited to comment on alternatives for replacing it, without the EPA proposing any replacement of its own.

Janet McCabe, former head of the EPA office of air and radiation, explained that seeking input before even proposing a replacement “is not a legally necessary step.” Agencies use this step “sometimes to seek broad input before they put their own thoughts down into a proposal, which necessarily signals a particular policy and legal direction.”

A former EPA attorney that helped craft the Clean Power Plan told Mother Jones that the agency’s invitation to the public to comment is actually its own stalling tactic. The extra step pushes back the EPA’s regulatory timeline for nine months, at least. The reason the status quo appeals to the administration’s coal allies is that the implementation of the Clean Power Plan was delayed by the Supreme Court while current legal challenges played out. The coal industry only gains by the EPA delaying a replacement climate regulation, because the longer it’s put off, the longer it can pollute without limit. By stalling, Pruitt kicks the can down the road, by betting that the status quo of no rule in place is better than a replacement.

“Pruitt doesn’t believe in this stuff, so he’s actually in a paradoxical position,” says Joe Goffman, the former EPA attorney who is now at Harvard Law School’s environmental program. “If they do propose a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, what he’ll be doing is putting his signature on the proposal which will require to some extent power plants to address their carbon emissions.”

Nothing Pruitt is proposing now changes the underlying legal and scientific reasoning for why the EPA needs to do something on carbon emissions from the coal sector. Natural Resource Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Director David Doniger says the administration’s strategy is basically “replacing the Clean Power Plan with a dirty power plan.”

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Trump administration to replace Clean Power Plan with ‘dirty power plan’

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The State of Reproductive Health Legislation in 2017 Is Not Exactly What You Would Expect

Mother Jones

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At the beginning of 2017, reproductive rights advocates feared that the election of President Donald Trump and the Republican sweep in many statehouses would embolden anti-abortion legislators at the state level. By mid-January, four states had already introduced late-term abortion bans, while others—Missouri, for instance—had filed a significant number of anti-abortion-related legislation ahead of this year’s legislative session. As the first quarter of the year comes to a close, a new report released this week by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research and advocacy think tank, finds that the policies introduced so far this year paint a more complicated picture.

The institute’s report finds that state legislatures across the country have introduced some 1,053 reproductive-health-related provisions since January, and that of those proposed measures, 431 would restrict access to abortion services, while 405 would expand access to reproductive health services—the report does not categorize the remaining measures.

Five states—Kentucky, Wyoming, Arizona, Arkansas, and Utah—have already passed at least one abortion restriction this year—with a total of 10 new restrictions becoming laws. In Kentucky, a ban on abortions 20 weeks post-fertilization was signed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin after a sprint through the state Legislature. Utah now requires doctors to tell women that medication abortions can be “reversed” after the first dose in the two-dose protocol, a claim that, as with many abortion counseling requirements in other states, is not supported by evidence. Arizona became one of the first states in the country to detail specific requirements for how doctors must work to preserve the life of the fetus after an abortion procedure, a law that some critics have challenged for possibly prolonging the pain of nonviable fetuses.

“There is this competition to the bottom that has been happening with state legislatures and abortion over the past six years,” says Elizabeth Nash, the state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute and the lead author on the report. But in 2017, she adds “the scale has changed.” She explained that compared with the same period from 2011 to 2016, “we haven’t been seeing as much activity on abortion as we have seen.” Rather than suggesting a diminished interest in abortion restrictions, Nash explains that given the onslaught of new abortion restrictions in the past six years, some states might simply be running out of measures to introduce. But beyond that, health care reform, state budgets, and the opioid crisis might have caused conservative state legislatures to focus their attention elsewhere at the beginning of their legislative sessions, suggesting that anti-abortion activity might pick up later in the year.

As a result of this reduced activity, Nash says, “we have been seeing less in the way of trends” when looking at the types of abortion restrictions introduced in 2017. There are still some commonalities among the various restrictions introduced in the states, particularly concerning “abortion bans” that prohibit abortions being sought for certain reasons—such as a genetic anomaly or the sex of the fetus—or after a specific point in the pregnancy.

In 28 states, legislators have introduced some 88 measures that would either ban abortion completely or prohibit it in specific circumstances. In Arkansas, for example, a law was recently passed that bars doctors from using a common second trimester abortion procedure known as “dilation and evacuation.” Similar restrictions have passed at least one chamber in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. The “20-week abortion ban” was passed in Kentucky and has cleared at least one legislative chamber in Iowa, Montana, and Pennsylvania. Six-week abortion bans, also known as “heartbeat bills,” are also being introduced in several states, possibly in response to Ohio legislators successfully presenting a version to Gov. John Kasich last year; he vetoed the bill but signed a 20-week abortion ban into law.

Nash notes that some of the legislative support of abortion bans may be motivated by an interest in getting a case before the Supreme Court in the next few years. “They are thinking about being the state that overturns Roe v. Wade and the way to do that is to adopt something like a 6-week abortion ban or a 20-week abortion ban and then send that up through the courts,” she says.

The Guttmacher report notes that abortion restrictions continue to be introduced at a relatively steady, if somewhat lessened, rate, but proactive reproductive health legislation has seen an increase, with 21 states and the District of Columbia considering measures that would expand reproductive health services. “The number of proactive measures grew from 221 in 2015 and 353 in 2016” to 405 in 2017, the report notes. The report suggests that this development is likely “in anticipation of the possible dismantling of the Affordable Care Act and loss of its contraceptive coverage guarantee.” So far Virginia is the only state to enact a proactive measure; the state will now require that insurance plans covering contraceptives allow enrollees to receive a year’s supply at once.

Proactive legislation on the state level is likely to become increasingly important as the Republican-controlled Congress and other conservative-led legislatures continue to use funding to target reproductive services providers such as Planned Parenthood. Last week, Trump signed into law a measure allowing states to withhold public funds used for family planning—also known as Title X funding—marked for contraception and other nonabortion services from groups that also provide abortions. The move nullifies an Obama-era rule protecting Planned Parenthood and other groups from losing federal family-planning funds.


The State of Reproductive Health Legislation in 2017 Is Not Exactly What You Would Expect

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Uncovering the Plot to Kill Lettuce

Mother Jones

Glossy, beautifully produced cookbooks tend to focus on scenic vacation magnets like Tuscany, Provence, or Napa Valley. But in Victuals, the veteran cookbook writer Ronni Lundy gives that treatment to a place most known in the popular imagination for economic and environmental dysfunction: the Southern Appalachians.

America often underestimates the Appalachian states of West Virginia, Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and the western Carolinas—even assuming that the pronunciation of the word “victuals” as “vittles” must be uneducated slang. Not so, reveals Lundy. In fact, the actual accurate pronunciation is “vittles.” “So we’ve been right for all of these years,” Lundy says on a recent episode of the Mother Jones food podcast Bite (interview starts at 14:45). “We’ve been right about the way you pronounce it, we’ve been right about the way you grow them, preserve them, the way you dry them and cure them and eat them, and the way you create community around the table.”

In Lundy’s book, a kind of travelogue with recipes, a different vision of the region comes to life: one of lushly forested mountains and fertile valleys dotted with small farms, blessed with “the most diverse foodshed in North America.” There’s even an ancient tie to the sunny Mediterranean. “What we call the Appalachian Mountains was once part of a larger chain on the ancient super-continent of Pangea,” she writes; and Pangea’s split left today’s Appalachia with “sister peaks” in present-day Morocco.

Lundy and I talked about her own roots in the region, the recent hipsterization of Appalachia, and what a typical dinner table might feature at the height of summer—which I can testify, having once lived in the region for nearly a decade, is a time of great beauty and bounty. And we talked through an irresistible dish called “killed lettuce”—fresh salad greens wilted with warm bacon grease. While the book, like the region’s small farms, teems with fresh produce, the hog and its various products emerge as the hero of Victuals: a reminder of the noble beast’s central place in so many resourceful food traditions across the globe.

Killed Lettuce

serves 4


8 cups torn crisp salad greens (in bite-size pieces)
2 whole green onions, finely chopped
4 bacon slices
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
salt and freshly ground pepper


Rinse and thoroughly dry the greens, and then toss them with the green onions in a large bowl.

Fry the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until very crisp, and remove from the skillet to drain. Remove the skillet from the heat. Immediately pour the vinegar over the lettuce and toss, then pour the warm bacon grease over that, tossing again. Add salt and pepper to taste. Crumble the bacon over the greens and serve immediately.

*These basic proportions can be used in many variations: Put a soft-cooked egg on top, which becomes part of the dressing, or warm beans. The defining part of the dish is that the greens are not cooked, but are tossed with vinegar and hot bacon grease to wilt them.

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Uncovering the Plot to Kill Lettuce

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How to defuse the methane timebomb in the Arctic? Unleash the mammoths!

When Rebecca Burgess was working in villages across Asia, she saw the impacts of the clothing industry firsthand: waste, pollution, widespread health problems. But in these same communities, from Indonesia to Thailand, Burgess also saw working models of local textile production systems that didn’t harm anyone. She was inspired to build a sustainable clothing system — complete with natural dye farms, renewable energy-powered mills, and compostable clothes — back home in the United States.

The result is Fibershed, a movement to build networks of farmers, ranchers, designers, ecologists, sewers, dyers, and spinners in 54 communities around the world, mostly in North America. They are ex-coal miners growing hemp in Appalachia and workers in California’s first wool mill. In five years, Burgess plans to build complete soil-to-soil fiber systems in north-central California, south-central Colorado, and eastern Kentucky.

People have asked her, “This has already left to go overseas — you’re bringing it back? Are you sure?” She is. Mills provide solid, well-paying jobs for people “who can walk in off the street and be trained in six months,” Burgess says. “This is all about dressing human beings at the end of the day, in the most ethical way that we can, while providing jobs for our home communities and keeping farmers and ranchers on the land.”

Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


How to defuse the methane timebomb in the Arctic? Unleash the mammoths!

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Trump Wants to Turn the Skies Black With Coal

Mother Jones

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Donald Trump is gonna bring back the coal:

President Trump is poised in the coming days to announce his plans to dismantle the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s climate change legacy….In an announcement that could come as soon as Thursday or as late as next month, according to people familiar with the White House’s planning, Mr. Trump will order EPA chief Scott Pruitt to withdraw and rewrite a set of Obama-era regulations known as the Clean Power Plan, according to a draft document obtained by The New York Times.

….At a campaign-style rally on Monday in the coal-mining state of Kentucky, Mr. Trump told a cheering audience that he is preparing an executive action that would “save our wonderful coal miners from continuing to be put out of work.”

This is part of Trump’s plan to repeal all of Obama’s “stupid” climate change policies. “We’re not spending money on that anymore,” Trump’s budget director told reporters. No more funding for climate change science; no more worrying about carbon emissions; no more auto mileage standards; and lots and lots of beautiful, black coal.

Except for one thing:

This is from Lazard’s most recent energy analysis. Coal just isn’t competitive anymore. Oh, existing plants will keep going for a while, and maybe Trump’s executive orders—if they ever go into effect—will keep them in operation longer than otherwise. But there’s nothing on the horizon that’s likely to reduce the cost of coal, whereas wind and solar continue to drop every year. Gas is also likely to stay cheap for a long time thanks to fracking.

None of this is a secret. Everyone knows that Trump isn’t going to save any coal jobs, but the coal miners like to hear him say that he will. Based on previous reporting, I gather that even they know it’s mostly blather, but they still appreciate it. They give Trump an A for effort.

Back in the early part of last year, there was a mini-upwelling of comments from liberals suggesting that Trump might actually be better from a progressive point of view than more conventional conservatives like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. That was never true, and climate change is an example of why. Cruz or Rubio would have both tried to get rid of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but I don’t think they would have literally tried to defund every bit of research into climate change or just flatly deny that carbon even mattered. They’re too conventional. But with Trump there’s always the danger that a combination of his signature ignorance and his rabid vengefulness will motivate him to go nuts. That’s what’s happening here. On the bright side, maybe his well-known incompetence will also keep him from being effective. But then again, maybe not.

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Trump Wants to Turn the Skies Black With Coal

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Who Really Benefits From Repealing the Stream Protection Rule?

Mother Jones

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Behold the politics of Donald Trump in a nutshell:

Weigel is in Florida, so the workers in question are mostly Appalachian miners. Here’s a quick look at Appalachian coal mining employment:1

This chart shows two things. First, coal mining in Appalachia has been plummeting for a long time. Decades, actually. So it’s pretty easy to see why Appalachian coal miners are in dire straits and eager to listen to someone, anyone, who sounds sympathetic to their plight.

Second, Trump is getting a lot of of attention for rolling back the Stream Protection Rule, but it’s not going to put anyone back to work. I had to cheat to even get it to show up on the chart. It’s responsible for maybe a hundred mining jobs out of a total decline of 30,000 between 2009 and 2020.

So who does benefit from rolling back this rule? Well, OSM figures that Appalachian mine owners will save about $24 million per year in compliance costs.3 So they’re pretty happy. This is a dynamic that we’re going to see over and over from Trump:

He puts on a big show about something or other. Workers cheer.
Offstage, it turns out the benefit to workers is minuscule.
Instead, the bulk of the benefits end up going to corporations and the rich.
Liberals will find out about this because the New York Times will probably write about it. Working-class Trump fans won’t, because none of it will be reported by Fox News or Drudge or Limbaugh or Breitbart.

Executive summary: workers get a pittance, the rich get rewarded, and streams and rivers will continue to be fouled by mine tailings. But Trump’s supporters will be happy because they’ll be kept in the dark by all the people supposedly looking out for them.

1This is approximate. I counted coal mine employment from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Alabama. The projection is based on a 50 percent loss of coal production and coal jobs between 2012 and 2020. The Office of Surface Mining figures that the Stream Protection Rule will cost about 260 mining jobs, and that Appalachia will bear 46 percent of compliance cost. (See this CRS report, p. 17.) So we can roughly figure that it will cost Appalachia a little over a hundred mining jobs.2

2The net job loss will be about zero, thanks to additional hires of engineers and biologists. However, that does nothing for miners.

3See here, p. 15. Total estimated compliance costs are $52 million per year, with Appalachia bearing 46 percent of the total.

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Who Really Benefits From Repealing the Stream Protection Rule?

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Trump "Agrees Completely" That Repeal-and-Delay Is a Terrible Idea

Mother Jones

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Rand Paul says Donald Trump isn’t happy with “repeal and delay”:

President-elect Donald Trump backed waiting to repeal the Affordable Care Act until a replacement proposal is in hand in a Friday night phone call with Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican said Monday, adding to momentum for changing GOP leaders’ strategy on dismantling the 2010 health-care law.

….“I believe we should vote on replacement the same day we vote on repeal,” Mr. Paul said in an interview Monday. Mr. Trump called the senator on Friday night “to say he agrees completely,” Mr. Paul said.

Uh oh. That’s a mistake, though it’s an easy one for an amateur to make. For the record: Mr. Trump calls no one. Other people call Mr. Trump. This is very important to Mr. Trump. He’s very insistent on following proper protocol, which is that others should be seen groveling to him, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, there’s a more serious mistake here too: Paul spoke publicly about Trump’s wishes before Trump did. This gives others plenty of time to corner Trump and talk him into changing his mind and then “explaining” that Paul didn’t get things quite right. It’s much better not to alert others to your conversation.

All that said, this fits the various smoke signals that have come out of Trump Tower for a while now, so maybe Trump really is serious about offering a replacement for Obamacare at the same time as repeal. I hope so. Obviously I’d prefer no repeal at all, but at the very least the American public deserves to know what Trump has in mind when the health coverage they currently have is ripped away from them.

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Trump "Agrees Completely" That Repeal-and-Delay Is a Terrible Idea

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Almonds Are Still Sucking Up Lots of California’s Water

Mother Jones

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Two new data points on the ongoing California drought and its impact on the state’s booming and thirsty farms:

• In California’s agriculture-rich, water-poor San Joaquin Valley, H2O from the state’s big irrigation projects has been especially scarce in recent years. As a result, farmers have had to rely heavily on water pumped from underground aquifers—and they’ve extracted so much of it that since 2013, land has been sinking in large swaths of the region, fouling up canals, bridges, roads, and other vital infrastructure and racking up billions of dollars in damage.

This year? Here’s an eye-popping report from the Sacramento Bee:

New wells are going in faster and deeper than ever. Farmers dug about 2,500 wells in the San Joaquin Valley last year alone, the highest number on record. That was five times the annual average for the previous 30 years, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of state and local data

Back in 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown reversed a long tradition of Wild West groundwater management in California by signing a new law requiring the state’s most stressed watersheds to stop drawing down aquifers faster than they’re naturally replenished. The catch: The guidelines don’t kick in until 2040. In the meantime, San Joaquin Valley growers are embroiled in a “kind of groundwater arms race,” the Bee reports.

Aquifers don’t respect property lines, and in many cases, farmers with older, shallower wells are afraid of losing water to neighbors who are digging deeper wells and lowering the groundwater table. So they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill new wells of their own. All told, farmers are expected to spend $303 million this year alone to pump groundwater, according to UC Davis researchers.

• In a new study presented last Wednesday at the Geological Society of America, Eastern Kentucky University’s Kelly Watson drills down into one of the destinations of all that water extraction: the state’s massive and growing base of almond groves.

Using satellite imagery, Watson looked at land conversions in California’s Central Valley (made up of two valleys, the San Joaquin and the Sacramento) between 2007 and 2014. She found that land devoted to the delicious (but water-intensive) nut had expanded 14 percent over that period—not surprising, given the ongoing almond boom.

The interesting finding, though, is that a huge chunk of the new almond territory was converted from fallow, completely un-irrigated land, including grasslands, wetlands, and forests. As for the rest, some of it switched over from less water-intensive crops like corn, cotton, wheat, and tomatoes; and some had been used for even thirstier crops like sugar beets, alfalfa, and clover. The bottom line: Watson calculates the net impact of the expansion was a 27 percent increase in annual irrigation needs for the converted land, putting massive new pressure on those struggling aquifers.

Over on Forbes, science writer Mallory Pickett notes that the study has yet to be published—it’s currently in peer review—and that “aerial images can only paint broad brush pictures” of the situation on the ground. But it’s not a pretty picture.

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Almonds Are Still Sucking Up Lots of California’s Water

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Here’s a sign that Kentucky’s politics might finally be shifting away from coal

Here’s a sign that Kentucky’s politics might finally be shifting away from coal

By on May 17, 2016 12:20 pmShare

“There is no red Kentucky or blue Kentucky. There is only charcoal black,” James Higdon wrote in Politico in 2014, noting the dominance of the coal industry in the state.

Two years later, we’re starting to see that change. In Kentucky’s Tuesday primary, the ballot includes a handful of politicians who are no longer railing against the “war on coal” but are trying to reckon with what happens after coal mines shut down.

This is easiest to see in the Democratic presidential primary. While campaigning in Kentucky and West Virginia, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders mostly resisted pandering to coal country. Sanders, an outspoken critic of fossil fuel production, won the West Virginia primary. Clinton said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” and got a lot of backlash for it. She offered a qualified apology, emphasizing her $30 billion stimulus plan for mining communities, but still insisted, “we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels.”

What’s happening in a little-watched Senate primary is even more interesting than the presidential race.

There are six Democrats running to compete against Republican Sen. Rand Paul this fall. The frontrunner on Tuesday is Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, and one of his challengers is Sellus Wilder, an underfunded environmentalist.

Gray hasn’t said much publicly about climate change or controversial policies like President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but Wilder has. He considers coal to be a problem not only because it contributes to climate change but also because it threatens public health. Instead of propping the coal industry up, he would prefer to see Kentucky work toward building a new, more sustainable economy. Most surprisingly, he says the “‘war on coal’ is kind of made up.” When confronted by miners in eastern Kentucky, Wilder says he doesn’t think these jobs are coming back – EPA or not. That’s why he’s calling for federal grants to support education in the state, build up new infrastructure, and provide economic relief.

“Until we’ve settled the fact that killing environmental regulations won’t bring coal back, we can’t move on to the next question: What we can do?” he said in an interview with Grist.

Wilder’s rare willingness to tackle these difficult topics earned him endorsements from Climate Hawks Vote, a super PAC favoring pro-climate candidates, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a progressive statewide advocacy group.

For Kentucky, “it is a first that a serious candidate with some serious statewide credibility is calling for an end to coal,” Climate Hawks Vote founder R.L. Miller said.

Wilder thinks Kentucky voters want a conversation about clean air and water, especially after Flint’s water problems.

“I find it difficult to talk about [climate change] because it’s such a partisan issue and it seems that facts don’t really factor into the debate really well,” he said. “I find a lot more traction talking about things that affect people’s lives. I make a lot more progress talking about things like energy efficiency and the costs of air pollution and the fact that Kentucky has epidemic levels of lung cancer, heart disease, and issues that are all directly related to air quality.”

Wilder is a long shot to win the primary on Tuesday, and neither he nor Gray stand much chance against the incumbent Rand Paul.

Still, Wilder’s candidacy is a sign that political wisdom is shifting in the state. As Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky, explains, a “substantial portion of the Democratic rank and file would like to see their party, and their statewide candidate, hew more closely to the national party’s environmental platform but they have enjoyed only limited success so far.”

You could see signs of this in 2014 as well. Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes ran against longtime Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, and lost. She pandered to the coal industry, and split with her party over the Clean Power Plan and on climate action. That may have hurt her more than it helped, say some Democrats like Wilder, because it didn’t win her much support among the coal community. But it did alienate progressives. On the same ballot, Rep. John Yarmuth, the only Kentucky congressman to win the Sierra Club’s endorsement, ended up earning 12,000 more votes than Grimes in the Louisville area.

Since we’re talking about Democrats here, we’re talking about a small portion of voters in Kentucky. Kentucky is not on the verge of becoming blue. And Republicans aren’t changing their approach yet. They’ll promise anything short of unicorns to coal miners this fall.

But if Democrats are starting coming around, then it may mean coal is finally losing its grip on politics, just like it lost its grip on the economy.


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Here’s a sign that Kentucky’s politics might finally be shifting away from coal

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How to make coal companies pay to clean up their messes

How to make coal companies pay to clean up their messes

By on 6 Apr 2016commentsShare

Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, is not in great financial shape. Last month, it casually skipped a $71 million interest payment, and analysts are speculating that it may be edging toward bankruptcy. Standard and Poor’s recently downgraded Peabody’s credit rating to a “D.” The company has $6.3 billion in outstanding long-term debt.

If you’re cheering for the death of coal, that might sound like good news. But there’s a nasty catch: Peabody’s financial troubles mean it might not be able to pay to clean up its messes, and restoring landscapes and repairing streams and rivers can be expensive. The company has “self-bonded” to pay up to $1.4 billion in reclamation costs at its mines in the United States — and self-bonding means we’re trusting it to do so.

While coal companies usually offer up collateral or contract out in order to guarantee that cleanup will be paid for, it has become common in recent years for companies to simply pledge that they’re going to deal with the costs. These self-bonds (as opposed to, say, surety bonds, which rely on third-party insurers) only rely on the name and financial stability of the company itself. In other words, they’re basically billion-dollar IOUs, written on fancy letterhead instead of Post-it notes.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why a demonstrably financially unstable company is able to get away with just promising to pay $1.4 billion in cleanup costs. That’s because the federal government and many states have loose rules that allow self-bonding instead of a more reliable mechanism to ensure that reclamation is paid for. And even troubled companies like Peabody can often meet requirements for self-bonding by applying through subsidiaries that look fine on paper.

“These rules were created in a different era, when nobody thought that coal companies could go out of business,” Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance at the Sightline Institute, told Grist. With Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources both having recently filed for bankruptcy, that era is clearly behind us. “The only solution at this point is to recognize that self-bonding has completely failed, and that the only way forward is to completely change the rules.”

State mining authorities could change those rules and instead require companies to post surety bonds or set aside cleanup cash in an escrow account. Or they could continue to allow self-bonding, but not through 100-percent-owned subsidiaries. Some states already don’t allow self-bonding at all, like Kentucky, Maryland, and Montana, according to a survey conducted by the Interstate Mining Compact Commission.

The federal government could help too by updating its rules. Right now it allows self-bonding if a coal company is “financially healthy,” but that definition is riddled with loopholes.

Credit ratings firm Fitch argues that Peabody’s recently announced risk of defaulting on its debts could prompt regulators to change their rules. “Citizen complaints, scrutiny from the attorney general of Illinois and congressional calls for investigation follow a record number of financial defaults in the U.S. coal sector foreshadowing even tighter self-bonding rules,” wrote the firm in a press release. With many coal companies on their last legs and taxpayers ultimately on the line, here’s hoping Fitch is right.



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How to make coal companies pay to clean up their messes

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