LIKE ANY development in a dynamic economy, the continuing transformation of the American energy mix creates winners and losers. The victors include electric utilities and their customers, businesses and homeowners, who benefit from access to a cheaper supply of reliable fuel, natural gas, that also happens to reduce carbon emissions. The losers, tragically, include communities in states such as Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, which — like many steel towns before them — are ravaged by the loss of good-paying jobs and the dignity they brought. In the face of such change, governments that value both compassion and efficiency can and should do whatever they can to maximize the benefits while mitigating the harms.
What the Trump administration and Congress must not do, therefore, is waste a second of the American people’s valuable time on West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s proposal for a massive subsidy to the Eastern coal industry. It’s bad enough that the Republicans — whom Mr. Justice, a former Democrat, has just joined — are using their domination of Washington to roll back clean-air regulations, which Mr. Justice and other defenders of the coal industry blame, with only partial accuracy, for the decline of coal’s share of the electric generation capacity in the United States from 48 percent to 30 percent since 2008. To pay utilities $15 for every ton of climate-damaging Appalachian coal they use, as Mr. Justice astonishingly suggested in an interview with Bloomberg News on Wednesday, would be grotesque.
The subsidy might indeed help preserve mines that are otherwise headed out of business, at least until competitors, inevitably, undercut the new subsidized price. It would also punish the gas-production innovators who have been creating jobs that at least partially offset those lost in coal. It would impose unfair competition on more-efficient coal producers in Western states. Last but not least, it would cost federal taxpayers — the vast majority of whom neither mine coal nor get their electricity from it — more than $1 billion per year at current coal-consumption rates, according to Bloomberg.
Preposterously, Mr. Justice characterizes this blatant bailout as a national security measure, since without it, the United States would not have the Appalachian coal industry as a source of residual fuel for Eastern utilities in the event of terrorist attacks on rail lines and the natural-gas infrastructure. Apparently, he has discussed his environmentally and economically irresponsible concept with President Trump and top administration officials, including Vice President Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and White House adviser Jared Kushner. Though Mr. Justice claimed the president is “interested,” a White House official told Bloomberg that nothing is in the works. Let’s hope this means that a little polite attention for his wretched idea is all Republicans plan to pay in return for Mr. Justice’s party switch.
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