Week 82: Indestructible (Yet Combustible) Coal?

Trump is confused about coal, NHTSA is confused about math, and Zinke is confused about climate change.

August 17, 2018

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

Trump photo: Nathan Congleton

Trump’s Coal-Fired Echo Chamber

If you surround yourself with yes-men, you don’t have anyone to tell you when you say something incredibly stupid. A month ago, President Trump told a West Virginia crowd, “You know, you bomb a pipeline, that’s the end of the pipeline. With coal, that stuff is indestructible . . . So for national security purposes, I don’t think people talk about it enough—coal.”

People laughed and clapped, so Trump assumed he was making a lot of sense. And then he made “indestructible coal” a regular part of his schtick. Signing a new defense authorization bill this week, Trump crowed, “In a military way, coal is indestructible. You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills—boom, boom, boom.”

Let’s set aside, for a moment, all the ways coal undermines national security by contributing to climate change—from creating conflicts abroad to threatening military bases in coastal areas. Let’s focus instead on how wrong Trump is about the robustness of a coal-based electrical system.

During World War II, Allied bombers decimated the rails and canals of Germany’s Ruhr Valley, the primary source of the country’s coal supply. The campaign hobbled the Nazi war machine. By the end of the war, Germany had less than a quarter of the coal it needed to power its factories. Steel production, which also relied on coal, was so anemic that the Nazis could barely produce enough ammunition and eventually stopped replacing damaged planes, tanks, and warships. So much for indestructible coal.

By arguing that pipelines are easier to destroy than lumps of coal, Trump is comparing apples to oranges. The pipeline is the delivery system for natural gas, not the energy source itself. Coal has a delivery system, too. Railways, trucks, and cargo ships can all be bombed as easily as a pipeline—probably more easily, because pipelines are usually buried underground.

Trump makes the same mistake with windmills. A windmill isn’t an energy source; it’s a machine that converts an energy source (wind) to electricity. The appropriate analog to windmills in coal-based electricity is the coal-fired power plant, which can also be bombed into oblivion. Here again, coal is actually at a disadvantage, because windmills—and solar panels, for that matter—are more spread out than coal-fired power plants. In terms of bombs-per-megawatt, you can disable coal-generating capacity more quickly than solar or wind. That’s one reason the Pentagon is currently building out its renewable energy options.]

Maybe They Forgot to Carry the One?

When the Trump administration proposed freezing automotive fuel efficiency standards two weeks ago, its stated motivation was to prevent traffic deaths. The logic—that higher standards would make cars more expensive, and consumers would respond by squeezing more miles out of their older and less safe vehicles—was convoluted and dubious on its face. We now have confirmation that our B.S. detectors are well calibrated: It emerged this week that career staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned the administration that its math was wrong.

EPA staffers circulated a memo in which they explained that the administration miscalculated the number of vehicle miles Americans would travel in future years. When that adjustment is taken into account, according to the EPA staffers, Trump’s new standards would increase traffic deaths by 17 per year between 2036 and 2045, rather than decreasing them by 150 as the administration stated publicly. The memo calls the idea of freezing standards to save lives “indefensible.” (These extra traffic deaths, of course, come in addition to the deaths likely to result from increased air pollution.

This wasn’t the first of the Trump administration’s failed arguments against fuel standards. Its initial claim—that fuel-efficient cars are lighter, and lighter cars are more dangerous—was immediately shot down by automotive safety experts as wildly unrealistic.

The Trump administration likely wanted to find a safety angle to justify its desire to freeze fuel efficiency standards and didn’t care whether the math was sound or not. It’s another example of Trump’s political appointees’ willingness to twist data to fit their deregulate-at-all-costs agenda. In a credibility showdown between Trump’s serial data abusers and career EPA employees, I know who I’m siding with.

They Don’t Call It Global Warming for Nothing

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is confused about climate change. While talking about the California wildfires this week, Zinke said, “This has nothing to do with climate change.”

At a separate appearance, however, Zinke said, “There's a lot of reasons for these fires: You have a longer fire season, you have a drought, you have higher temperatures, and then you have a fuel load and the density of burnable material is unprecedented in a lot of areas.”

At least three of the four factors Zinke cites are consequences of climate change. Here’s NASA linking longer fire seasons over the past 40 years to climate change. Here’s the EPA linking drought to climate change. And if you’ve been paying attention in science class (or to the record-breaking global average temperatures in recent decades), you already know climate change causes higher temperatures.

Scientists will debate how indisputably we can link these particular wildfires to climate change, but pseudo-geologist Zinke is in no position to decide—and certainly not while the fires are still burning.

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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