President Trump brandished executive pen and fresh hyperbole last week in blessing the coal industry’s decades-old practice of freely dumping tons of debris into the streams and mountain hollows of America’s mining communities.
“Another terrible job-killing rule,” Mr. Trump declared at a signing ceremony that struck down the Obama administration’s attempt to regulate surface mining wastes. He insisted he was saving “many thousands of American jobs” in sparing coal companies the expense of cleaning up their environmental messes.
The signing ceremony was not just an insult to the benighted coal hamlets of Appalachia, where the industry’s dumping of debris down the mountainsides has created a wasteland. It also ignored two truths. One is that by official estimates the rules, while helping the environment, would in fact cost very few jobs — 260 on average a year offset by almost the same number of jobs for people hired to comply with the rules. What’s been costing jobs in the industry for years — and this is the second and larger truth — is a shifting global market in which power plants have turned to cleaner natural gas. In cynically promising the resurgence of King Coal, Mr. Trump might as well have been signing a decree that the whaling industry was being restored to Nantucket.
Americans can expect more such delusional signing ceremonies in the days ahead as Congress avails itself of a little-used statute known as the Congressional Review Act to strike down environmental rules that are vulnerable to reversal because they were enacted in the waning months of the Obama administration. Any such rule labeled “job killing” or “executive overreach” seems doomed, especially if seen as a threat to campaign donors in the fossil fuel industry. It matters little that the rule may be widely supported by the public.
A case in point is a rule that seeks to reduce wasteful emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, at thousands of oil and gas wells across the West. Though the industry cries bankruptcy, the Interior Department calculates the cost of the rule at less than 1 percent of revenues. Another target is an Interior Department rule that would invite greater public input in designing resource management plans across the West to achieve a fair balance between conservation and commercial development. Representatives Rob Bishop of Utah and Liz Cheney of Wyoming — two reliable industry supporters — have managed to persuade their colleagues that this would undercut state authority, which is nonsense.
Picking off these easy targets is only the beginning of the administration’s retreat from environmental sanity, using fantasy claims of job creation to cater to the Tea Party’s resentment of federal regulation. One leader of this retreat will be the new boss of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general and aggressive skeptic of climate change who made his political career out of suing the agency he now leads. Within days of his swearing-in, demoralized E.P.A. workers were reminded of Mr. Pruitt’s close working ties to the fossil fuel industry as thousands of his emails were released showing his office dealing hand in glove with industry lobbyists.
Mr. Pruitt quickly riled critics by daring to quote John Muir, the patriarch of the environmental movement and founder of the Sierra Club: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in.” Left unmentioned were his orders from Mr. Trump to rewrite, rescind or at least challenge any important environmental rules left standing when Congress has finished with its current demolition job.