Trump Plan to Save Coal May Put Lives at Risk From Pollution

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration’s plan to keep money-losing power plants open would save coal mining jobs but at the same time unleash more pollution that would cost lives, according to a new analysis.

For every 4.5 coal mining jobs supported by the drafted policy, one American would die from the surge in air pollution tied to generating electricity from the fossil fuel, according to modeling by the independent, nonprofit research group Resources for the Future.

The assessment is one of the first broad looks at the potential environmental consequences of the Trump administration’s evolving plan to prop up coal and nuclear power plants that are at risk of closing amid competition from cheap natural gas and renewable electricity. President Donald Trump ordered his energy secretary to take immediate action to stem power plant closures on June 1, and administration officials have been considering a drafted plan to require power purchases from designated at-risk facilities to keep them in operation over the next two years.

Even under “conservative assumptions,” the approach "would cause an estimated 353 to 815 additional premature deaths in the United States from power plant sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions," said the analysis, led by Daniel Shawhan, a visiting fellow with Resources for the Future.

Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution is linked with respiratory infections, asthma and impaired lung function. Federal requirements for pollution controls at coal-fired power plants have been justified partly by the avoidance of premature deaths.

The Resources for the Future assessment assumes that the Trump administration’s possible action would delay the closure of an average of 7,800 megawatts -- some 3 percent -- of U.S. coal-fired generation capacity and 1,100 MW -- or 1 percent -- of U.S. nuclear capacity. Based on models of the electric sector and air pollution dispersion, the analysts said the possible intervention could delay -- at least until 2021 -- the announced retirement of all but two utility-scale coal-fired and nuclear electric generation units that are on track to close between mid-2018 and 2020.

The result would be an extra 38 terawatt-hours of electricity from coal and 17 additional terawatt-hours of nuclear generation -- along with a 53 terawatt-hour reduction in power from natural gas, according to the analysis.

Administration officials are still weighing the exact strategy as part of an interagency review, so the possible intervention -- and the potential outcome -- could change.

Although nuclear power does not generate carbon dioxide that drives climate change, burning coal does -- and the possible federal intervention would boost those emissions by 22 million short tons over two years, the analysis finds.

The administration is justifying its push to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants on national security grounds, with Trump touting coal as bomb proof during a visit to a West Virginia charity dinner on Tuesday. “You bomb a pipeline, that’s the end of the pipeline,” Trump said. “With coal, that stuff is indestructable.”

The effort also aligns with Trump’s campaign promises to save coal. Some 790 coal-mine jobs would be supported by the intervention over two years, according to the RFF analysis.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.