By KEN WARD JR.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Supporters and opponents of the Trump administration’s Clean Power Plan repeal turned out Tuesday at the state Capitol, with both sides asking for something they almost certainly can’t have.
Coal industry officials and regional political leaders spoke hopefully of a major resurgence in mining, a development most experts agree won’t happen, even with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency carbon pollution rules eliminated. Environmental groups, public health officials and citizens asked the EPA not to repeal the Obama administration’s greenhouse limits, a move that is also highly unlikely, given President Donald Trump’s repeated promises to kill his predecessor’s signature climate change initiative.
Still, more than 200 people showed up for the first of two days of testimony in the lone public hearing that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has so far scheduled on his sweeping proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan.
Murray called the greenhouse emissions limits part of a “regulatory rampage” by the Obama administration, and said he was grateful the country “finally has a president who has vowed to protect coal jobs.”
“God bless President Trump and you coal miners,” Murray said. “I love you fellas.”
About 25 Murray Energy employees, wearing their work clothes and miner caps, stood and greeted Murray when he entered the room just prior to the hearing. Murray shook their hands, calling some of them by name and asking others if they had children. None of the miners offered comments to the EPA during the hearing. After the morning hearing sessions, some of the miners took a lunch break — on a sunny day with temperatures in the 60s — on the Capitol grounds, as part of a fairly low-key West Virginia Coal Association rally.
National environmental groups, local citizen groups and other opponents of the EPA repeal proposal held their own event across the Kanawha River at the University of Charleston. They urged the EPA not to abandon the Clean Power Plan, and encouraged a focus on protecting public health and diversifying coalfield economies, while also taking steps to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
“Climate change isn’t something far off in the future,” Lindsay Pace, who lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and works with a group called Moms Clean Air Force, testified to the EPA. “It’s happening now.”
Ben Levitan, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund, reminded the EPA — and an audience in West Virginia — of the state’s major flooding in June 2016 and the connection between intense storms and climate change.
“These are the kinds of events that are becoming more frequent and more intense because of climate change,” Levitan said.
“Repealing the plan means ignoring the reality of the climate crisis,” said Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club.
At issue at the hearing is the Trump EPA’s proposal to basically reverse a key part of the legal arguments the agency used under Obama to justify the Clean Power Plan. The proposed repeal, published in October, said the Obama plan was illegal because it proposed to have power companies reduce greenhouse emissions by making system-wide changes, such as switching from coal to natural gas or renewables, rather than mandating only certain emissions reductions that could be achieved at specific plants.
Tuesday’s hearing, with panels of EPA officials listening to testimony in three separate committee rooms spread across the Capitol, was an issue that drew mixed responses from EPA critics and supporters.
Coal industry officials and regional political leaders praised the EPA for bringing the event to Charleston, noting repeatedly that the Obama EPA refused to hold a Clean Power Plan public hearing in West Virginia. Environmental groups complained that the EPA hasn’t yet scheduled any additional hearings on the proposed repeal, noting that the Obama EPA held multiple public hearings before issuing the rule.
EPA Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio said that the agency hasn’t yet decided whether it will schedule additional public hearings, and also hasn’t set a timeline for announcing what kind of replacement rule it will propose to meet the legal requirement — kicked in by a 2009 finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare — that it take some steps to address the issue.
“Those things are all under consideration,” Servidio said.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose office won a U.S. Supreme Court order that delayed implementation of the Clean Power Plan, said during Tuesday’s hearing that he would be working on litigation and to support legislation to ensure that some version of the Clean Power Plan doesn’t “come back in four or five years.”
Morrisey opened the hearing as the first speaker. He is running against Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Citing votes in Washington, Jenkins and Manchin both sent staffers to read statements for them at Tuesday’s hearing, as did Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va.
The EPA hearing continues at 9 a.m. today at the Capitol.