There are plenty of differences between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But nowhere do they stand further apart than on energy policy. And their widely divergent views on coal, in particular, may have an outsized impact on the fall election.
For her part, Clinton has praised President Obama’s efforts to “Keep it in the ground” when it comes to coal and other fossil fuels. In fact, Clinton wants to fully implement the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which would force the closure of 40 percent of America’s remaining coal fleet.
On the other end of the spectrum, Donald Trump has promised a “targeted review” of the CPP because it “forces investment in renewable energy at the expense of coal and natural gas, raising electricity rates.”
Essentially, Clinton wants to end coal use, and Trump wants to defend it.
It’s important to note that new coal-based power plants in the United States are up to 90% cleaner than the older plants they replaced, thanks to the widespread use of scrubbers and high-tech emissions controls. And these clean-coal plants still generate 33 percent of all U.S. power. That means any effort to lock up coal could spark an electoral backlash.
Seventeen states are up for grabs in the fall election, and notably 13 of them rely on coal for up to half of their electric power. These 13 swing states represent a whopping 149 electoral votes—more than half the number needed to reach the White House.
The question come November could be whether or not voters in these coal-dependent states are willing to happily surrender their durable, cheap electricity along with the jobs it supports.
Understandably, they may not want to give up on coal. The power plants in these “Big 13” states generate some of the lowest electricity prices in the nation, and also support roughly 370,000 jobs and $90 billion in economic activity. That sort of financial interdependence between coal power and the surrounding economy can’t be switched off overnight. Especially when these same states plan to invest $58.5 billion by 2020 to make their power plants cleaner.
If coal becomes a pocketbook issue for voters this fall, “keeping coal in the ground” may not be a winning message for political candidates any more than it is a practical energy policy for the country.
The EPA has already shut down 200 coal plants, and will likely close another 46 of them soon. At the same time, energy experts are warning of the grid’s increasing vulnerability to power shortages. A hit to coal and affordable power will undoubtedly knock Americans hard in the wallet. And so, come November, coal may well be as potent a political issue as it is an important energy source.
Terry M. Jarrett is an attorney with Healy Law Offices, LLC in Jefferson City, Mo., and has served on both the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and the Missouri Public Service Commission.