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Sierra Club: Trump can't undo progress on transition from coal to clean energy

The Sierra Club and other opponents of the coal industry are digging in for a fight to protect the Clean Power Plan from President Donald Trump, even though emissions are expected to hit the policy's targets more than a decade early.

"Perhaps no single regulation threatens our miners, energy workers and companies more than this crushing attack on American industry," Trump said March 28 before signing an order that asks the U.S. EPA to begin a process that would rescind the Clean Power Plan. Coal companies cheered the move and Trump touted the order, which included multiple provisions targeting policies affecting coal, beside a line of coal miners standing beside him in Washington, D.C.

A Peabody spokesman said that in its first 100 days, the Trump administration has taken "sweeping and bold steps to deliver on its promise to support low-cost energy and protect jobs."

"Today's actions make great strides toward repealing onerous regulations that damage the ability of American consumers and industry to access reliable, affordable electricity," said Peabody Energy Corp. President and CEO Glenn Kellow. "We believe a technology path is a better alternative to achieve energy, economic and environmental objectives."

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, however, alluded to an analysis the organization completed that found the U.S. is expected to hit 2030 emissions targets 13 years ahead of schedule. Despite that, which Brune attributed to "strong local action to replace coal and gas with clean energy," the Sierra Club is fighting to keep the Obama policy alive.

"The Clean Power Plan is a critical tool that helps every state benefit from the clean energy economy and plan for an orderly and effective transition away from fossil fuels," Brune said in a statement. "Sadly, Trump's aggressive pro-polluter action means residents living downwind of the remaining coal- and gas-powered power plants will suffer from dirtier air while missing out on many of the benefits of the fair and just clean energy economy the Clean Power Plan would help create. And kids everywhere face a deeply uncertain future, with a President content to let the climate crisis spiral out of control."

Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, explained that the Clean Power Plan provides an "orderly process" to transition away from fossil fuels.

"It gives notice to communities, to workers, that this is how we're going to go about making this transition and here is what we're going to replace coal and gas with," Nilles said, noting five coal-fired plants have been closed since Trump took office. "Without that planning process in the Clean Power Plan, it's going to be a lot less orderly, a lot more chaotic and a lot more turbulent for everyone involved."

However, he also noted that the Clean Power Plan is a "down payment" that provides the legal framework for going even further on U.S. climate action. He said such efforts were likely to be taken on by administrations after Trump.

"If you're a utility and you're trying to make an informed investment decision, Trump matters a lot less. Trump's only going to be around for four years, or worst case eight years, and they make investment decisions for 30 years," Nilles said.

Without the Clean Power Plan setting a target, Nilles said, utilities betting there will be some form of action on climate in future see that "the only smart investment in a world of uncertainty is a zero-carbon alternative clean energy."

The Trump administration still has hurdles to clear before it can actually pull the Clean Power Plan.

Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, emphasized the executive order would not make the Clean Power Plan go away. The process for unwinding the Clean Power Plan, he said, could easily stretch past the 2020 election.

"For anything to happen on this front, EPA will need to initiate a notice and comment rulemaking process that has many significant built-in hurdles," Revesz said. "The agency will need to propose a rule explaining the legal, economic, and scientific basis for its change of position. And it will need to not only justify the merits of this new approach but also provide a convincing explanation for why it is departing from the approach embodied in the Clean Power Plan."

Brune insisted Trump could not simply reverse the environmental movement's progress on clean energy and climate with the stroke of a pen.

"The good news is that the safeguards Trump wants to shred — like the Clean Power Plan — are on a strong legal footing and the public will have the chance to voice its objections as the Trump administration tries to roll them back," Brune said.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, however, has argued the Clean Power Plan exceeds the EPA's congressional authority and violates the U.S. Constitution. Legal efforts led by Murray Energy Corp., as well as West Virginia and other states, netted a stay of the Clean Power Plan in early 2016.

"President Trump's decisive action lets everyone know this unlawful, job-killing regulation will find no support in his administration," Morrisey said in a statement March 28. "That's a tremendous relief for every coal miner and family that depends upon coal's success. It also underscores the importance of our achievement in halting the rule's enforcement, while reinforcing the Supreme Court's message — proponents of the Power Plan should put their pencils down."

Nilles emphasized the organization's ability to fight coal plants at the state and local levels. He said in those arenas, the Sierra Club will be "doubling down on the argument that most every coal plant today in the United States is costing ratepayers money and is more expensive than clean energy."

"We're going to be spending a lot of time and effort fighting his efforts in the courts and on the streets going forward," Nilles said. "This is not just one thing. He's got a bunch he's proposing to do. He has failed on enacting a Muslim ban. He's failed on stripping health care from 24 million Americans and he's going to fail on slowing the U.S. transition from coal to clean energy."