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In Wave of Coal Plant Closures, MD Considers Relief Payments to Workers

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One of the most spectacular failures of the Trump administration – other than his failure to “drain the swamp,” or bring back American manufacturing, or eliminate the federal debt, or control COVID-19, or do many other things – was his failure to resurrect the coal industry.

President Trump tried to rescue coal mining jobs by rolling back pollution-control regulations. But the closure of coal-fired power plants across the U.S. actually accelerated during his term in office. Nearly 100 coal power announced their retirement over four years – one plant every 15 days, a faster rate than under Obama.

Driving the decline is capitalism – with advances in technology making natural gas, and increasingly solar and wind power, simply cheaper than coal. In Maryland, the owners of five of the state’s six coal-fired power plants announced last year that they were switching to natural gas or shutting down.

Legislation being debated this month in the Maryland General Assembly would set carbon dioxide pollution limits so low they would guarantee that all the coal-plants in the state close by 2030. Advocates argue that creating legal deadline and mandate for closure is valuable because markets can always change – and companies can always change what fuels they say they will burn.  

The legislation – Senate Bill 148, the “Maryland Coal Community Transition Act of 2021” -- would also set aside $40 million to help retrain coal plant workers who lose their jobs and fill in salary gaps if they switch careers.

Here’s the lead sponsor of the senate bill, Republican State Senator Chris West of Baltimore County.

“The burning of coal is a 19th Century technology, which is far and away the dirtiest way of burning electricity,” West said during a recent committee hearing. “It fouls the air and it is one of the principal causes of global warming. As a matter of public policy, this bill ensures that the era of coal furnaces belching carbon into the air in Maryland will come to an end, soon.”

Backing the bill is an unusually broad alliance ranging from the Sierra Club – which doesn’t always work hand-in-hand with Republicans – to the largest owner of coal-fired plants in the state, GenOn Holdings Inc.

In a written statement, the company’s CEO, Dave Freysinger, said the bill reflects the changing reality of technology and “provides needed funding and resources to facilitate the transition of our employees to new careers in the evolving energy industry.”

David Smedick is a campaign representative with the Sierra Club.

“It is well known that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel on the grid, and that we must stop burning it to respond to the climate crisis and to address disproportionate burden on communities near coal plants,” said Smedick. “This legislation presents a thoughtful and common-sense approach to the urgency at hand.”

Opposition to the bill comes from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. Here’s their representative, Tom Clark.

“I think this legislation is taking a huge gamble and may result in rolling backouts during the summer,” Clark said. “But I’m mainly concerned with the well-paying jobs that this state will lose. ….just to use energy from out of state coal-burning power plants.”

That last claim --about neighboring states still relying on coal -- is not really true. In Pennsylvania, for example, 14 coal plants have shut down over the last decade, and last year, only 9 percent of electricity generated in that state came from coal – compared to half a decade earlier.

In West Virginia, 10 coal power plants have closed or switched to natural gas. So even in the epicenter of the coal industry – and the heart of Trump country – change is electrifying the power grid.

The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.