Democracy Dies in Darkness

Fact Checker | Analysis

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's claim that 'clean coal' helped reduce carbon emissions

By Michelle Ye Hee Lee

April 5, 2017 at 3:00 AM

(Susan Walsh/AP)

"We've demonstrated through the steps we've taken already, the pre-1994 levels, because of that technology — we can burn coal in clean fashion."

"I think that we've done it better than anybody in the world at burning coal clean, in a clean fashion. The innovative and technological advances that we've seen, along with natural gas production and generating electricity, it all contributed to a CO2 footprint that's pre-1994."

"As I indicated earlier, we are pre-1994 levels, and do you know why? Largely because of innovation and technology, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, because there's been a conversion to natural gas in the generation of electricity."
— Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, interview on "Fox News Sunday," April 2, 2017

During this interview, Pruitt mentioned four times that carbon emissions in the United States are back down to pre-1994 levels. He used this factoid to deflect repeated questions by host Chris Wallace on the health implications of carbon dioxide emissions and how Pruitt intends to reduce carbon emissions without the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. Environmentalists and climate-change skeptics alike criticized Pruitt's performance on the show, saying he failed to answer questions from Wallace.

Pruitt said additional regulation is unnecessary because carbon emissions have already been reduced to pre-1994 levels. He attributed the decline to a host of nonregulatory efforts, including the ability for factories to use technology to "burn coal in clean fashion."

What is he talking about?

The Facts

The Clean Power Plan, a flagship environmental regulatory rule of the Obama administration, proposes to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It is on hold while under litigation.

President Trump has started rolling back Obama-era environmental protections, including directing federal regulators to rewrite federal rules to reduce carbon emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency did not respond to our requests for comment, but data from the agency and the Energy Information Administration (EIA) confirm that total carbon dioxide emissions in 2015 were down to pre-1994 levels. Carbon emissions gradually increased after 1994 and peaked in 2007, and they have been declining since.

Coal carbon emissions have generally declined since 2007, while natural gas carbon emissions have increased since 2009.

[Update: Despite the reduction in annual emissions, a new study published in the journal Nature Communications warns that burning fossil fuels at the current rate could bring total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to record levels.]

So what happened since 2007? The EIA attributes reduction in coal emissions to the switch from coal-powered plants to more efficient natural-gas-powered plants, and the growth in renewable energy (especially wind and solar). From 2005 to 2015, fossil-fuel electricity generation declined by about 6 percent and noncarbon electricity generation grew by 20 percent. As Pruitt says, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are newer methods of extracting natural gas that have contributed to reduced carbon emissions.

Environmental groups say the growth in energy efficiency also played a role, by flattening the demand for electricity generation. The Obama administration had issued energy-efficiency standards and regulations for appliances to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy production. From 2005 to 2015, electricity generation grew by just 1 percent and carbon emissions fell by 21 percent, according to the EIA.

The Trump administration stopped some of the Obama-era energy-efficiency regulations from taking effect, through a moratorium on pending regulations. The administration also proposed eliminating a federal program that sets efficiency standards.

What is "burning coal in a clean fashion"? "Clean coal" is a term that Trump and coal industry representatives often use to describe carbon capture and storage, a technique to capture carbon emissions from power plants, transport it through pipelines and inject it deep into the ground to make oil wells more productive.

This technology has been developing through the 2000s, but it remains expensive. The Energy Department has withdrawn funding from several massive projects, The Washington Post reported. The Trump administration's proposed budget leaves intact a federal program to fund research and projects to develop carbon-capture and storage technology.

While this technology is thought to be an important step toward reducing carbon emissions, experts say it isn't being used enough by factories to have made a difference on current coal emission levels. There aren't many new coal factories being built anymore, and the first large-scale "clean coal" facility was declared operational in January in Texas. So it's unlikely that this technology contributed to reductions in carbon emissions down to pre-1994 levels. Another coal plant in Mississippi using carbon-capture technology was expected to open the same month, but it was delayed.

The Texas and Mississippi plants mark the arrival of the technology "that has been heralded as essential to the future of coal burning in particular (though it has many other applications), but has struggled despite considerable subsidies from the U.S. Department of Energy," The Post reported.

The Pinocchio Test

Pruitt repeatedly cited reduced carbon emission levels and new technology for "burning coal in a clean fashion" to deflect Wallace's questions about the health implications of eliminating coal regulations. He probably was referring to technology to capture carbon emissions before they're released into the air, transport them through pipes, and then inject them deep underground into oil wells. Such technology has been developing for many years but has lagged and remains expensive. The first coal-fired power plant to employ this on a large scale became operational in January, so Pruitt is giving way too much credit to the use of this technology.

If Pruitt only attributed lower emission levels to "clean coal," this claim would earn Three or Four Pinocchios. But in the course of the four times that he repeated this point in the "Fox News Sunday" interview, he also named a legitimate factor that helped reduce carbon emissions: the increase in natural gas production. Natural gas has been growing at the expense of coal, so he's correct to point that out.

The other major contributor is the growth in renewable energy (especially wind and solar), which Pruitt did not mention. And environmental groups also attribute flattened demand for energy thanks to energy-efficient appliances, products and buildings. In all, Pruitt earns Two Pinocchios for this muddled talking point.

Two Pinocchios

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Michelle Ye Hee Lee is a national political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post.

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