April 20, 2017 - Flanked by Missouri politicians and energy officials, the nation’s top environmental official stepped up to the podium outside the Thomas Hill Energy Center in Clifton Hill, Missouri, Thursday morning ready to make clear the new direction his agency would take during the administration of President Donald Trump.
“The war on coal is over; the war on fossil fuels is over,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, repeating comments he made last week at a coal mine in Pennsylvania.
The comments were made more resonant by the fact that Pruitt was speaking at a coal-fired power plant. He went on to discuss the so-called “Back-to-Basics” agenda the EPA has adopted in the nearly two months since Pruitt’s confirmation.
The new agenda aims to “Get the EPA back within its lane,” Pruitt said beneath a packed tent with the towering facade of Thomas Hill behind him.
“For the last eight years, we have had an administration that said you have to choose between jobs and growth and the environment, and that’s just simply a false choice,” he said.
Pruitt indicated several times that a large part of his agency’s return to “basics” will include shifting away from Barrack Obama-era climate and environmental regulations intended to protect the environment and blunt the effects of climate change — although critics claim these regulations are examples of government overreach.
The Waters of the United States rule — the target of a recent Trump executive order — was also one of Pruitt’s targets at his Randolph County speaking event.
“The EPA is no longer going to be an agency that tries to engage in power over water decisions at the state level,” he said, noting his support for Trump’s order for review of the 2015 WOTUS rule, which defines which bodies of water are under federal authority.
Pruitt also made clear his intention to engage in regulatory rollback that leaves many environmental decisions to individual states.
“I believe that you care about the air you breathe and that you care about the water you drink,” he said. “And you’re invested in that.”
Attendees of the event, which was closed to the general public, applauded Pruitt’s comments, but he has been met with strong criticism for his public questioning of the link between human-caused carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, as well as for his record during his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general, when he sued the agency he now leads.
That criticism extended to a telephone press conference hosted by the Sierra Club.
Caleb Arthur, CEO of Sun Solar, Missouri’s largest solar company, spoke alongside a current Sun Solar employee and former coal miner at the Sierra Club press conference about the growth of solar power in the state.
“Our industry is about creating viable and affordable solutions to our current and future energy needs for Americans without polluting our planet,” Arthur said. “... Meanwhile we are discussing in American politics how to revive a dying coal industry.”
Solar and wind energy are beginning to compete economically with coal and natural gas, he said.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal power in Missouri has been on the decline over the last several years. In 2014, coal produced 83 percent of Missouri’s net electricity generation, according to the EIA. In 2015, that number had fallen to 78 percent, and it was 77 percent in 2016.
Physician Dr. Gordon Christensen, of Columbia, called Pruitt a “climate change denier and fossil fuel promoter” in his comments on the link between the health of the environment and the health of Americans at the Sierra Club press conference.
“According to the Clean Air Task Force, (the Thomas Hill Energy Center) produces enough air pollution to cause every year 21 heart attacks, 240 asthma attacks and 14 deaths,” Christensen said. “According to the Sierra Club, there are currently 16 coal-fired power plants in Missouri like Thomas Hill. You can imagine how much illness these plants cause us.”
Officials at the Thursday press conference at Thomas Hill maintained that the plant is a “clean” coal plant.
Missouri dignitaries at the Thomas Hill event included Republicans Rep. Tim Remole, Rep. Chuck Basye, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, Rep. Travis Fitzwater and U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer.
Blunt introduced Pruitt with strong words of support.
“If you would have told me a year ago we could be here today with Scott Pruitt as administrator of the EPA, I would say surely it couldn’t be that good,” Blunt said. “We now have someone at the EPA who has fought the EPA but is willing to make a new commitment to do what the EPA is supposed to do: Look for environmental problems and solve them.”
Barry Hart, executive vice president and CEO of the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, also spoke in support of Pruitt. He also invoked the economic impact of the closing of coal plants.
“The annual budget of (Thomas Hill) is $200 million,” he said. “Now just think about that — if you take this plant out of service, what kind of impact it would have on Missouri. And what if you did the same for every other clean coal plant in the state. There’s a lot at stake here.”
Those who spoke at the Sierra Club press conference would likely agree that much is at stake.
US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, left, poses for a photo with Missouri Rep. Chuck Basye at the Thomas Hill Energy Center on April 20. Photo by Alex Lindley, MMI