Unaccompanied miner

“YOU’RE going back to work,” Donald Trump told miners on March 28th. Gathered in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they saw him sign an executive order to review and revise Barack Obama’s flagship energy policy, the Clean Power Plan. Among other measures, the order also requests the reversal of a moratorium on coal-leasing on federal lands and dispenses with rules to curb methane emissions from oil and gas sites. It rolls back internal rules for government agencies on how to tot up the social costs of environmental damage, too.

The Clean Power Plan was unveiled in August 2015. It directed states to work out how to cut emissions from power plants to avoid pollution equivalent to the exhausts from 80m cars by 2030. The policy was meant to get America almost halfway to meeting its pledge to cut emissions by 26-28% by 2025, as measured against 2005 levels, for the Paris agreement (which seeks to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures). But legal challenges from 27 states and several companies saw the Clean Power Plan put on hold by the Supreme Court a little over a year ago.

Because it has never been implemented, the plan’s demise hurts less than environmental campaigners suggest. Around 30 states already require power companies and utilities to increase their use of renewable energy over the next decade. And states with economic heft, such as California and New York, are formidable climate champions. The Golden State has planned for its emissions to fall by 40%, against 1990 levels, by 2030.  Even in Republican strongholds such as Texas and Oklahoma, congressional subsidies have helped wind projects to thrive.

As America’s energy mix changes, new coal-leasing on federal lands is unlikely to bring back jobs as Mr Trump claims. In 2006, coal generated 49% of America’s electricity; by 2015 it provided 30%. Six coal-fired plants have closed since the presidential election. And as for jobs, efficiency, rather than regulation, lies behind most of the losses. America produces almost 50% more coal than it did in 1940, but employs just 13% or so of the miners, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

Of the other measures, killing rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas sites is particularly worrying. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for more than 500 years; methane for only 12. But methane is many times more potent during that time. And perhaps as much as 2.5% of the stuff flowing through American supply chains escapes. If current plans are approved in Congress, the EPA will have far less cash with which to detect big spurts in the greenhouse gas, like the one which occurred last year in Los Angeles.

Squashing the EPA pleases those conservatives who believe the agency has overreached. But Mr Trump stopped short of authorising two other policies: instructing the EPA to reconsider its “endangerment finding” of 2009—which lets it regulate carbon-dioxide emissions in line with an earlier Supreme Court ruling—and withdrawing from the Paris agreement.

Under that deal, countries need to decide on how to measure the impact of their plans to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 2018, and then set themselves new targets by 2020. Both processes will be less open and less exacting if the world’s second-largest polluter neither helps lead them nor bothers to meet its commitments. Nevertheless, the falling cost of renewables and the severity of urban air pollution are among reasons why countries such as India and China will continue down a greener path anyway. That may provide a little comfort to the scientists and officials whose own efforts have been undone with a stroke of Mr Trump’s pen.