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Perry Praises ‘Clean Coal,’ but Trump Administration Policies Don’t Promote It

MORGANTOWN, W.V. — On his first official visit to this coal-seam state that voted overwhelmingly for Donald J. Trump, Energy Secretary Rick Perry praised the work of the scientists at a federal laboratory devoted to figuring out how to burn more coal with less pollution.

“You and your predecessors have really worked to change the world,” he told workers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, one of 17 research facilities run by the Department of Energy. “What you do here matters.”

But in the Trump administration’s ideal economy, where the energy sector would be freed from regulatory mandates, international climate change obligations and environmental rules, what scientists at the West Virginia lab do would not matter very much. And that might explain why, despite his effusive praise, Mr. Perry has proposed to cut by 54 percent the budget of the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on researching technologies to use coal, oil and natural gas more cleanly and safely.

That cut would include the lab in West Virginia and four others around the country that have developed smokestack “scrubbers” to reduce toxic mercury pollution from burning coal; designed deep-sea drilling hardware to prevent disasters like the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion in 2010; and researched technology that could allow the burning of coal without the emissions of the planet-warming carbon dioxide.

Grace Bochenek, the director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, was blunt about her interests as she led Mr. Perry’s tour: “Today was about educating, giving him perspective, so he can make a better decision.”

Mr. Perry’s appearance here neatly illustrated the contradictions between the Trump administration’s message on energy and the scientific and economic realities of lighting and fueling the country. Last month, President Trump and his cabinet began trumpeting the catchphrase “energy dominance” in speeches promoting his support of increased coal mining and oil drilling.

The president frequently promises that he will restore jobs to coal miners, after a decade in which market forces and changes in technology have reduced their numbers to 66,000. At a March signing ceremony for an executive order rolling back President Barack Obama’s climate change regulations aimed at curbing pollution from coal-fired power plants, Mr. Trump promised that “we’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal.”

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has taken the lead in Mr. Trump’s push to dismantle climate change regulation on coal pollution, has called for the United States to export “clean coal” technology.

But some experts say that Trump administration proposals would probably fail to deliver on those promises.

“There’s no relationship between what we’re seeing in the real world and what the Trump administration is doing in terms of energy policy,” said David Victor, a chairman of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security and Climate Initiative and a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego.

Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Perry have regularly proclaimed their support for clean coal — a broad, nontechnical term that is generally understood to refer to coal that is burned in conjunction with technology that strips away pollutants such as soot, mercury and carbon dioxide — exactly the technologies developed in the Morgantown lab that Mr. Trump’s budget proposes to cut.

The global economy will increasingly demand cheap electricity produced with minimal toxic or planet-warming pollution. For coal to survive, it will need more technologies that extract the pollutants that foul the air and warm the planet. In the United States, government research labs like the one in Morgantown have focused in particular on “carbon capture and storage” technology, which strips out and stores carbon dioxide from burning coal. While the technology is too expensive to use commercially, researchers hope to reduce costs and keep coal viable in a carbon-constrained world.

“The only way you’re going to be able to use the majority of fossil fuel assets in the United States while also addressing climate change concerns is to use this technology,” said Howard Herzog, an expert on carbon capture technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But Mr. Trump has shown little concern for climate change. He has announced the withdrawal of the United States from the international Paris climate accord and has instructed Mr. Pruitt to dismantle Mr. Obama’s climate-related regulations.

To date, efforts to deploy carbon capture technology commercially have failed. Last month, Southern Company, a major electric utility, stopped construction of a pilot carbon capture coal plant in Mississippi that was running three years behind schedule and $4 billion over budget. And government efforts to research breakthroughs in the technology have so far failed. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations spent close to a combined $2 billion on a failed carbon capture pilot plant.

The Trump budget for the fiscal year that begins in October also seems to have given up on clean coal. It would cut research and development for carbon capture and storage technology to about $35 million from more than $200 million.

“We’re heavily dependent on coal, and if coal is more environmentally friendly, electric utilities are more willing to burn it,” said John Deskins, the director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. “Helping find ways to burn coal more cleanly is really important. If we diminish research in that area, we diminish hope for West Virginia.”

Mr. Perry has commissioned a study on the reliability of the electric grid to be released in the coming days or weeks, which is widely expected to conclude that increased use of coal is essential to keeping the lights on in the United States, although a leaked draft of the study, obtained last week by Bloomberg, appeared to suggest that increased use of wind and solar power is not a threat to grid stability.

Coal state lawmakers from both parties are pushing to increase government tax credits for carbon capture research. West Virginia’s senators, Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, and Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, introduced a bill last week to expand a government tax credit program to pay for carbon capture research. The bill has the backing of more than 20 senators from both parties.

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on Mr. Trump’s position on the bill.

Some West Virginia voters see Mr. Perry’s budget as a betrayal of Mr. Trump’s promise to help their region.

“We want to see coal prevail, but cutting something like that lab, which helps both coal and the environment, is like shooting us in the foot,” James Smyth, a retired salesman of coal mining equipment, said over a cocktail at Crockett’s Lodge in Morgantown.

Not all West Virginia voters agree. “That funding — is it working towards an endgame or is it just part of the liberal agenda?” asked Daniel Bulian, a biologist and Trump supporter with a tattoo of his home state, West Virginia, on his right biceps. “I support President Trump because he supports the coal that built this state.”

Although he is a scientist, Mr. Bulian, like Mr. Trump, appeared largely unconcerned about human-caused global warming. “Climate change is a null issue for me. It’s too early to know if there are any serious impacts,” he said.

Meantime, Mr. Perry offered an unconventional option for reviving the coal market. “Here’s a little economics lesson: supply and demand,” Mr. Perry said during his West Virginia visit. “You put the supply out there, and demand will follow.”

The remark, which went viral on social media, was widely derided by economists as at odds with the basic principles of economics — that supply follows demand, not the other way around.

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