Fossil-fuel industries cheer Trump’s regulatory rollback; what’s the impact?

A coal-mine operation in southeastern Montana

HELENA – One year into Donald Trump’s presidency, one of his signature achievement has been the rollback of environmental regulations – a move especially cheered by natural-resource industries like coal, oil and gas.

The Trump administration has repealed, halted or reconsidered more than 60 such rules, from approval of major oil pipelines to backing off from a potential increase in mineral royalties paid on federal lands.

“With the election of the Trump administration and the subsequent, methodical repeal of (Obama administration) rules, I think it just sent an incredible sign of relief through the (coal) industry, that the demise that seemed inevitable had stopped,” says Bud Clinch of the Montana Coal Council.

“Regulatory certainty – that’s what we got, that’s what we like,” adds Alan Olson of the Montana Petroleum Association. “We don’t feel like we need to be looking over our back and anticipating new rules on a continual basis.”

Yet whether those changes mean a boom or rebound for those industries in Montana remains to be seen.

And environmental advocates say Trump’s initiatives mostly just favor fossil-fuel industries over other energy sources – while also threatening public health and public land.

“Anything that has a fossil fuel on it is fair game for their buddies, and they are trying to stymie public engagement in any process that gives away public minerals to private entities,” says Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Renewable power is the wave of the future, she says, and the emphasis by Trump and like-minded Republicans on fossil fuels means that the country, and Montana, will fall behind on emerging energy technology.

At least a dozen of Trump’s rule changes affect coal and coal-fired power plants, as the president reverses Obama administration efforts to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and combat climate change.

The Trump administration canceled the Clean Power Plan, which placed caps on carbon emissions, lifted a freeze on new coal leases on federal land, postponed a rule limiting toxic-metal discharge from power plants, repealed a rule to tighten regulation on coal mines’ effect on water quality, and is reviewing a rule to limit carbon emissions at new or modified power plants.

Clinch said the demise of the Clean Power Plan is vital for the coal industry, which feared the plan would severely undercut demand for coal-fired power nationwide.

“The vast majority of Montana’s coal industry is dependent on our domestic customers around this country,” he told MTN News in a recent interview. “The repeal (of the CPP) was a great relief that somewhat stemmed the tide of the decrease in the demand for coal.”

Coal production in Montana ticked upward about 3 million tons in 2017, from an historic low in 2016 of 32 million tons. Its highest level in the past decade was nearly 45 million tons, in 2008.

Clinch said the increase can’t be attributed entirely to Trump, because most of it came from higher exports for one mine. But the industry is feeling more positive having a friend in the White House, Clinch said, encouraging the capital-intensive business to consider some longer-term investment.

“I think the general consensus is that coal is going to stay in the mix for electrical generation for a long time into the future,” he says.

Coal mining employs only about 1,200 people in Montana, but Clinch notes that those jobs are well-paying, with full benefits. He also says the industry supports four to five times that many jobs in related sectors, such as transportation and equipment.

On the oil-and-gas front, the Trump administration has approved the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, revoked a rule on reporting methane emissions and canceled new regulations on hydraulic fracking on federal lands.

Olson, the Montana Petroleum Association director, says he also hopes approval for drilling permits on federal lands will get much quicker – a goal voiced Tuesday by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, when speaking to an energy-industry conference in Houston.

“The biggest problem with a lot of the federal rules is that they come down to one-size-fits-all, and that doesn’t work,” Olson told MTN News.

U.S. oil production has been hitting all-time highs, but oil-and-gas production in Montana declined last year, continuing a downward trend since 2014.

Olson says Montana doesn’t have the geological edge of some areas, like North Dakota, but that the better regulatory climate and the tax-cut bill passed by Republicans may encourage more investment in Montana’s oil-and-gas fields.

Yet while Trump pushes fossil-fuel energy, he’s undermining renewable power, environmental advocates say.

Brian Fadie, clean energy program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, says the Trump 2019 budget proposal cuts program and research funding for renewable power and energy efficiency by 70 percent.

“The Trump administration is trying to take us backwards on that, when the rest of the world is moving forward with clean energy,” he says. “The rest of the world is reaping the benefits of the jobs and reductions in utility bills.”

Hedges also says employees at coal mines and coal-fired power plants would be better off preparing for jobs in emerging industries like wind and solar power and reclamation.

“They’re going to give people the false hope that deregulation of all these environmental rules is going to save them, and all they’re going to be left with is a mess that’s not going to be cleaned up,” she says.

For environmental regulators in Montana, the change or proposed changes in federal rules have yet to have a broad impact, says Tom Livers, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The Clean Power Plan had already been stayed by a court order, Montana had approved the Keystone Pipeline route, and several of the rule changes are proposed and have yet to be made final, he says.

Still, Livers says his agency is concerned about proposed cuts in federal funding for clean-air and clean-water regulation in Montana, that make up a sizable chunk of the agency’s budget.

“The big concern is, if what we’re seeing is just the first wave, which it could be,” he says of the proposed regulatory rollbacks. “I think we have to be watching (for) what are the cumulative effects of all of this stuff put together. It could be significant.”