Week 54: Dear President Trump, Coal Is Neither Clean Nor Beautiful

Trump sees beauty in environmental destruction and lies about sea ice, while Scott Pruitt is outed for personally scrubbing climate change from the EPA website.

February 02, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

In the Eye of the Beholder?

President Trump praised “beautiful clean coal” in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Far be it from me to question Trump’s sense of beauty—the former owner of the Miss Universe pageant is, ex officio, the universe’s leading beauty authority. But his eye for beauty has always been a bit unorthodox. Among the things he describes as “beautiful” are statues of Confederate generals, weapons, money, telephones, gas that knocks you out, and his own face.

More important than Trump’s aesthetic sense is his policy sense, which is objectively poor. “Clean coal” is a farce. The federal government has been financing research to capture carbon from coal-fired power plants for more than 20 years. The plan called for large-scale implementation of the technology by 2020, and it didn’t work. The first commercial carbon-capture coal plant didn’t open until last year.

The coal industry has talked big about finally scaling up the technology, and for a while its particular focus was on a soon-to-open plant in Kemper County, Mississippi. But carbon capture at that project turned out to be a disaster. The initial cost projection of around $2 billion had soared to $7.5 billion by last year, making it by some measures the most expensive power plant in history. And the plant will never capture any carbon. On orders from the exasperated Mississippi Public Service Commission, the operators eventually abandoned coal and transformed the project into a natural gas plant.

The saddest part of the experiment is that, according to the Sierra Club, Mississippi could have used that $7.5 billion to install solar panels and batteries for every single one of the utility’s customers.

And that’s the fundamental problem with “clean coal.” We can argue endlessly about what “clean” means and whether coal can ever really be clean, but it will never be cleaner than renewable energy. Coal is an outdated technology that survived too long because it was cheap. If it’s not cheap anymore, what’s the point? Let’s transition away from coal and save a big, beautiful pile of money.

Unrepentant Denier

When Good Morning Britain’s Piers Morgan asked President Trump about climate change last weekend at Davos, the president started with his usual shtick about how occasional cold weather disproves the existence of global warming. Then he added a new dollop of nonsense: “The ice caps were going to melt, they were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records.”

He’s correct, in a sense. Sea ice is setting records—record lows. According to NASA, the wintertime maximum extent of arctic sea ice was the lowest in history last year. At around the same time, sea ice at the south pole, which was experiencing summer, was at the lowest level on record.

When Donald Trump says or does something inane, someone reminds us that he’s “not a traditional politician.” That’s clearly true—traditional politicians know how to be misleading without telling lies that can be uncovered by a precocious six-year-old with a smartphone.

President Trump, you are entitled to your data interpretation, but you’re not entitled to your own data.

Naughty Scott Pruitt

A 2016 radio interview surfaced this week, in which Scott Pruitt called then candidate Donald Trump “abusive to the Constitution” and agreed that Trump was dangerous and a bully. When questioned about the comments in an appearance before the Senate on Tuesday, Pruitt, now the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, claimed not to recall making them.

Imagine for a moment that you have your dream job—no matter that it’s a position you’re not remotely qualified to hold, or that you supervise thousands of people who seem to want you fired. Now also imagine that, just before getting that job, you publicly called your future boss a dangerous bully and a threat to our country. Would you forget that interview? Or would you live every day in fear that your boss—who is quite fond of firing people—would one day learn what you really think of him? Yeah, that’s what I’d say, too.

Shortly after the interview became public, Pruitt tried to make it up to his boss, insisting that he views Trump as “the most consequential leader of our time.” Sadly, he might prove to be right.

Scott Pruitt Cleans Up Well

We’ve thoroughly documented the Trump administration’s failure to meet deadlines. It missed deadlines to report on national carbon emissions, limit ground-level ozone, and protect individual states from air pollution, among others. But Scott Pruitt proved the administration can move quickly when something is a priority—like wiping climate change information from the EPA’s website.

Emails released this week via a Freedom of Information Act request by the Environmental Defense Fund showed that Scott Pruitt was personally involved in alterations to the agency’s website in April 2017. “Climate change,” for example, is no longer one of the “environmental topics” on the primary portion of the EPA site. According to the watchdog group Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, more than 200 web pages dealing with climate change have been removed.

Pruitt seems to have been particularly keen to eliminate information regarding the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation aimed at reducing carbon emissions from the nation’s aging fleet of power plants. Pruitt’s senior advisor for public affairs asked his web staff about the schedule for removing that page, then followed up just four hours later, noting he was “just asking because he [Pruitt] is asking.” I wonder how Pruitt managed to get that message out through his soundproof booth.

No More Investigations? Oh, Darn.

As the Trump administration publicly tries to undermine the investigation into potential Russian interference in the presidential election, it’s also working to undermine investigations at the EPA. In a memo that recently became public, EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins complained to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that the administration’s 2019 budget proposal would “destabilize the OIG [Office of Inspector General] and have an immediate negative impact on the OIG’s production capacity.”

Elkins appears to be laboring under the false belief that the administration actually wants the agency’s OIG to effectively carry out its mission to identify waste and fraud at the agency. Elkins is currently overseeing at least three investigations into Scott Pruitt’s decisions, including his $25,000 expenditure on that soundproof phone booth, his travel expenses, and his use of loopholes to bring unqualified officials into the agency without the traditional Senate approval process. Somehow I think Pruitt wouldn’t mind hindering the inspector general right about now.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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