Just after he was elected president, Donald Trump went on a “victory tour,” in which he visited states that he won, ignoring those where Hillary Clinton received more votes. At the time it seemed like only the 20th-most classless thing he was doing on any given day, but in retrospect it was a highly symbolic decision, a synecdoche for the presidency he was about to begin.
In the Trump era, the very idea of a national interest — something that transcends whether benefits are being distributed to your people or the other side’s people — has practically ceased to exist.
I bring that up because of this story out today from Jennifer A. Dlouhy of Bloomberg:
Trump administration officials are making plans to order grid operators to buy electricity from struggling coal and nuclear plants in an effort to extend their life, a move that could represent an unprecedented intervention into U.S. energy markets.
The Energy Department would exercise emergency authority under a pair of federal laws to direct the operators to purchase electricity or electric generation capacity from at-risk facilities, according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg News. The agency also is making plans to establish a “Strategic Electric Generation Reserve” with the aim of promoting the national defense and maximizing domestic energy supplies.
“Federal action is necessary to stop the further premature retirements of fuel-secure generation capacity,” says a 41-page draft memo circulated before a National Security Council meeting on the subject Friday.
You might think that Republicans would be outraged about this. We’re talking about the federal government not just “picking winners and losers,” something free-marketeers claim to abhor, but literally ordering utilities to buy a certain kind of fuel, which just happens to be the kind that creates the most pollution and in many cases costs more (don’t worry about the inclusion of nuclear energy; this is really about coal).
But Republicans are not outraged, because as former House speaker John Boehner said yesterday, “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party.” And the rule in the Trump party is: Reward those who serve you, and punish those who don’t.
Any ideological considerations must take a back seat to that principle. Sometimes it means cutting regulations, and sometimes it means increasing regulations; it just depends on who the winners and losers are. Liberals may say mockingly that this proposed rule smacks of socialism, but it isn’t guided by any kind of philosophy of governing. It’s a payoff.
In 2016, Trump repeatedly promised the residents of states such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania that he was going to revive the coal industry. He went to West Virginia, donned a helmet, pantomimed digging with his lips pursed, and said, “For those miners, get ready because you’re going to be working your a–––– off.” Everyone cheered, and it’s hard to blame them, since many of their communities have been devastated by the steady loss of what were once well-paid jobs with good benefits (negotiated by a union, of course). Unlike Clinton, who accepted the reality of coal’s decline and wanted to help those communities find other ways of reviving themselves, Trump simply said that he’d bring back coal.
But the idea that we could eliminate some environmental regulations and thereby bring all the coal jobs back was always ludicrous. Estimates of the number of coal jobs in America vary slightly (see here or here), but they generally come in between 50,000 and 75,000, which means that there are more Americans who work at Arby’s than there are in the entire coal industry. That’s the product of a long-term decline attributable mostly to automation (you don’t need to send 1,000 miners down into the hole with pickaxes anymore) and competition, especially from natural gas, the price of which has plummeted with the fracking boom.
No reasonable person thinks that the coal jobs are coming back, but this was one of the most explicit promises Trump made, and if he doesn’t deliver, it will make everything he said in 2016 look like a scam. And if the market no longer wants coal, Trump will force power plants to buy it.
But didn’t the Obama administration do the same thing, you ask? After all, as part of the 2009 stimulus bill, it put billions of dollars into research and loan guarantees to support renewable energy. The answer is that it’s profoundly different, because renewable energy serves a critical purpose: reducing pollution from both toxic chemicals and the gases that worsen climate change. The only thing promoting coal use does is favor some people’s jobs over other people’s jobs.
And those investments paid off. The renewable-energy sector has positively exploded in the past decade as prices have come down and demand has increased. According to the Trump administration’s own data, there are three times as many jobs today in solar and wind as there are in coal. And over the next decade, the two fastest-growing job categories in the United States are projected to be solar installers and wind turbine technicians.
In contrast, nobody pretends that forcing power companies to buy coal they don’t want is anything other than a temporary payoff to an industry in inexorable decline. But it’s an industry that gave Trump its support, so it’s the one that gets government help.
And if that hurts the rest of the public in the form of dirtier air and higher electric bills, so be it. If you want to win this president’s favor, ask yourself: Did you vote for him or give him money? If not, you can take a hike.
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