Election finds Americans at crux of climate change

Coal jobs, algae fight represent regional issues

  • AP-Poll-Climate-Change-10-16

    The coal-fired Plant Schereris operates in Juliette, Ga.


  • Many people believe the 2016 election has put America at a crossroads on climate change, becoming almost a referendum on anything from continued job losses in Ohio’s coal industry to efforts at combating western Lake Erie’s algae-plagued water.

    On his campaign website, Republican Donald Trump vows to “rescind all job-destroying Obama executive actions,” a reference to several initiatives President Obama has taken to reduce climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

    “Mr. Trump will reduce and eliminate all barriers to responsible energy production, creating at least a half million jobs a year, $30 billion in higher wages, and cheaper energy,” the Trump campaign website states.

    Both Mr. Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton support expanded use of an advanced horizontal drilling technique developed during the modern era of fracking that, over the past seven years, has made America energy-independent and brought revolutionary changes to energy markets with historically low natural gas prices.

    But although Mrs. Clinton said at the end of the second presidential debate on Oct. 9 she has a plan to “revitalize coal country,” Mr. Trump has said her tone in earlier comments suggests she is pleased to see the coal industry shrink.

    “Energy is under siege by the Obama Administration. It is under absolute siege,” Mr. Trump said at the debate, blaming what he sees as onerous U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. “We are killing — absolutely killing — our energy business in this country.”

    He said he — like Mrs. Clinton — supports renewable energy, but added “we need much more than wind and solar.”

    “I will bring our energy companies back,” Mr. Trump said. “We are putting our energy companies out of business. ... It's a disgrace, an absolute disgrace.”

    Ohio still gets about 69 percent of its electricity from coal, down from more than 80 percent a few years ago. But it has about 2,900 people directly employed in the coal industry — less than 1 percent of the state’s workforce. Most are in the southern or eastern parts of the state, especially in Belmont, Harrison, Perry, Tuscarawas, and Jefferson counties. Thousands of other people have jobs indirectly supported, according to the Ohio Coal Association.

    The state ranks 10th for coal production among America’s 25 states in that industry. Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Illinois are the leaders, the association said.

    Citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, one Ohio publication cited a drop-off of 816 Ohio mine workers, from 2,416 to 1,600, between 2015 and 2016, but said the decline started about 1990, when Ohio coal mines employed 6,740 people.

    Yet for as different as Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton seem, some top environmental policy experts believe market forces are so strong now that America will continue experiencing revolutionary energy changes regardless of who’s elected.

    “A lot of what’s in the system will stay. It’s too hard to stop,” said James L. Connaughton, who served as White House Council of Environmental Quality chairman under former President George W. Bush, told the Society of Environmental Journalists at the group’s national conference in Sacramento recently.

    The national debate over energy policy now is “over how much faster, smarter, and cheaper” changes should occur, not whether they should happen, Mr. Connaughton said.

    While advances in fracking technology have revolutionized the energy market, advances in battery-storage technology have accelerated interest in renewable power, experts say.

    The U.S. solar market is set to grow 119 percent this year, largely because of gains in utility-scale projects.

    President Obama’s most controversial environmental policies — especially his contested Clean Power Plan — are at risk if Mr. Trump wins, Mr. Connaughton said.

    President Obama’s Clean Power Plan calls for landmark reductions in climate-altering carbon dioxide and other pollutants emitted from aging coal-fired power plants.

    Though acknowledging Mr. Trump is hard to predict, Mr. Connaughton said history shows he responds to market trends.

    He also would be “very aggressive about ramping up energy production of all stripes,” Mr. Connaughton said.

    “Mr. Trump is very transactional,” he said. “Mr. Trump has spent his entire career hedging his bets.”

    Time to go

    Bob Perciasepe, who has spent more than 30 years in environmental policy both inside and outside government, said the nation’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants aren’t being phased out because of President Obama’s policies, but because utilities finally realized they can’t be competitive when there are cleaner and more efficient options.

    “They complained, but it was time for them to be retired,” Mr. Perciasepe said at the same SEJ conference.

    Now president of the Washington-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Mr. Perciasepe is a former Maryland secretary of the environment who ran both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air and water divisions under former President Bill Clinton. He went back into the private sector as the National Audubon Society’s chief operating officer for about six years before President Obama named him U.S. EPA deputy administrator in the fall of 2009, a job he held until August, 2014.

    Displaced coal miners need to be retrained for other jobs “as opposed to having a fantasy that somehow the coal industry is going to come back,” Mr. Perciasepe said.

    Mr. Trump has promised during his campaign to bring back jobs in the coal industry.

    “That would be like saying the carriages pulled by horses should come back because [that industry] employed a lot of people,” Mr. Perciasepe said. “I think the rhetoric needs to stop and the solutions need to begin.”

    The next president will be the first to inherit the White House with carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere consistently above 400 parts per million, a level that scientists believe is taking Earth into uncharted territory.

    Warming & algae

    Climate change is not seen as the cause of western Lake Erie’s chronic algae, but something that exacerbates the problem, officials said.

    With the exception of regional droughts this year and in 2012, the Great Lakes region has had wetter summers for decades. Algae thrives in heat, and climate change — in combination with more agricultural runoff — is believed to be at the root of a 20-year rise globally in outbreaks of microcystis, one of the primary carriers of the algal toxin, microcystin.

    At a campaign rally in Miami on Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton stood with former Vice President Al Gore at her side. She promised to continue with President Obama’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

    “I can’t wait to have Al Gore advising me when I am president of the United States,” she said.

    The two talked about the potential for rising sea levels that could someday immerse much of South Florida in water, as well as the potential for more Zika virus, and ticks carrying Lyme disease across North America.

    Mrs. Clinton said $400 billion of property is at risk in South Florida alone, and that rising water levels could destroy as much as $882 billion of property nationally. She noted how the Pentagon has identified climate change as a national security threat.

    “Climate change needs to be a voting issue,” she said. “We need to elect people up and down the ballot who want to do something about it. We cannot keep sending climate deniers to statehouses, to Congress, and certainly not the White House.”

    Mr. Trump has vowed to not only repeal President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, but also pull the United States out of the landmark Paris agreement that 195 nations signed last fall to unify the world on carbon-reduction strategies.

    Mr. Gore, who won a 2007 Nobel Prize for his long-standing campaign against climate change, said the Paris agreement is not perfect, but “is by far the biggest step the world has taken” and “sent a powerful signal to business and industry.”

    Author-activist Bill McKibben, another one of North America’s most high-profile climate activists, told a University of Toledo audience this month a Trump administration could take a toll on Earth’s climate for generations.

    That comment prompted this response from Seth Unger, Mr. Trump’s Ohio communications director:

    “Like most Americans, Mr. Trump strongly disagrees with Hillary Clinton and Bill McKibben that climate change is one of the most urgent issues facing our country today,” Mr. Unger said. “Our most urgent priorities include defeating radical Islamic terrorism, rebuilding our military, and bringing jobs back to America. The Trump administration will work with Congress and the states to achieve our shared environmental goals and to refocus the [U.S.] EPA on its core mission of clean water and clean air.”

    But Heather Zichal, a former deputy assistant to President Obama for energy and climate change who’s now a senior fellow for the Global Energy Center-Atlantic Council, told the SEJ audience she is “very concerned what a Trump administration would do to the environment, and I don’t take that lightly.”

    Once the election’s over, the two parties need to seek more common ground, she said.

    “The question is how far and how fast we can get back to a discussion with Republicans, knowing climate change is real,” Ms. Zichal said.

    Lakes restoration

    Philosophical differences between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump also were a focus of the recent Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition conference in Sandusky. HOW is a coalition of more than 140 environmental, conservation, and outdoor recreation organizations; and zoos, aquariums and museums.

    Mrs. Clinton issued a statement acknowledging the importance of the lakes to the region’s 40 million people — 30 million in the United States and 10 million in Canada — and challenges ranging from toxic algal blooms to pollution to invasive species.

    Clean water “is not a luxury; it’s a basic right,” she said.

    Mrs. Clinton vowed to modernize the Great Lakes region’s drinking and wastewater plants, and support President Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

    The latter, known as the GLRI, stems from a 2008 campaign pledge President Obama made to infuse the Great Lakes region with at least $5 billion in new money for overdue cleanup of toxic sediments in Great Lakes harbors and streams.

    The GLRI has been used to fund projects in the Toledo area such as the construction of a man-made wetland in Oregon designed to improve water quality at Maumee Bay State Park. The administration fell short of its pledge, though, never funding the GLRI at more than $500 million and usually around $300 million a year during President Obama’s eight years in office.

    President Obama’s pledge was in response to a 2005 report by the former George W. Bush administration, the most comprehensive inventory of Great Lakes needs. It identified more than $23 billion of overdue work, mostly with sewage-treatment plants.

    Republican Michael Budzik, who served as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife division chief under former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, spoke on behalf of the Trump campaign at the HOW conference.

    He said his comments were approved by the campaign, and that Mr. Trump “strongly believes a strong economy and healthy environment go together.”

    Like Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump supports President Obama’s GLRI, according to Mr. Budzik — although, when questioned in more detail about Mr. Trump’s position later, he said simply the GLRI “is definitely on the campaign’s radar screen,” and that he wouldn’t have been authorized to speak at the HOW conference if the Trump campaign didn’t believe it was important.

    Mr. Trump supports the GLRI because it requires financial commitments from local, regional, and state governments, and it promotes cooperation with Native American tribes, business and industry, and community groups, Mr. Budzik said.

    “This type of collaboration is exactly what we need to make America great again,” Mr. Budzik said.

    He said improvements to water and sewage infrastructure are important to Mr. Trump.

    “I believe we’re going to see a fundamental change in trying to take care of a few things at home and I believe this is going to be on the [radar] screen,” Mr. Budzik said.

    He said it is important to use science, not emotion, when battling algae.

    Toledo’s 2014 algae-induced water crisis, which made the city’s tap water unsafe the first weekend of August that year for nearly 500,000 metro-area residents, was a wake-up call for those who put too much faith in government, he said.

    “What happened in Toledo two years ago and what happened more recently in Flint are indications that government still needs to step it up several notches,” Mr. Budzik said. “We cannot just look to government to solve all of our problems.”

    Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.