At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Amid Global Pivot, Ghost Dancing in American Coal Fields

Underground coal miners in Appalachia, 1945

Underground coal miners in Appalachia, 1945

SOMERSET, KY — There are reasons to feel empathy for the ghost dancers in America’s coal fields. Like the Plains tribes of the late 19th century, the men and women that supply the nation’s steadily eroding demand for coal raise closed fists of anguish, dance in circles, and call on false prophets for help.

An industrial culture is dying. Unyielding, era-altering market and technology trends are running coal’s usefulness for supplying electricity to the ground. People in Appalachia, along the Ohio River, and in the surface and underground coal fields of the West merit our national appreciation. Their courage, their dust-clogged lungs, their 130-year-old devotion powered an industrial economy that really did make America great.

But the age of burning coal to generate electricity is sunsetting. U.S. coal production, a bit more than 700 million tons last year, has fallen from 1.2 billion tons a decade ago. Just 30 percent of U.S. electricity is supplied by coal-fired power plants, down from half eight years ago.

Other big nations are following the same course. China cancelled 300 big coal-fired power plants in the last two years. India idled dozens of big coal plants and cancelled its program to build 16 big 4,000-megawatt generating stations. Global coal production peaked in 2013 and has fallen three straight years. Emissions of climate changing gases, according to the International Energy Agency, have finally stopped going up.

Those facts, and hundreds more like them, form what I argue is the greatest “good news” story of our time. The world is pivoting to clean energy and away from coal. In 2015, clean energy developers spent $286 billion globally on solar, wind, biomass, and other alternative fuels. That was more than twice as much as utilities spent to develop new coal and natural gas fired plants.

When the numbers for 2016 are published, they will show the trend was even stronger last year. India announced in December that it has no need to build another new coal-fired plant for at least a decade and maybe ever. India has committed to increase its generating capacity from renewable energy sources to 275 megawatts by 2027. That’s equal to more than a quarter of all current U.S. generating capacity. China’s renewable energy goals are even higher.

And that’s where the bad news comes in. And it’s distinctively American bad news. The Trump administration’s new policies to assist coal miners and coal producers will do little to help either. Coal-fired electrical generation is more expensive than natural gas or the sun and wind. The administration’s policy to weaken clean water rules that protected streams from strip mining, or to dismantle the Obama administration’s program of tightening carbon emissions for coal-fired power plants will slow America’s pivot to cleaner fuels. It will likely keep a few older coal stations open that utilities were planning to close.

But the president may also go after wind and solar development, and the government-financed research programs that keep U.S.clean energy technology and equipment competitive. If he does, it’s a certain formula for wrecking the U.S. economy.

The transition to clean energy is the biggest market opportunity of the century. Trillions of dollars in international investment will be made to update the electrical and transportation sectors, and to more efficiently power industrial processes. Electric vehicles are coming. More energy efficient homes, buildings, and materials are on the way. Cleaner manufacturing practices are coming. America is competitive in all of these arenas now.

Is the president really going to get in the way of the most important new industries of this century? He really could. That is frightening.

Trump’s policies, and his cabinet appointments, are intended to bring discipline to black fuel markets that can’t be disciplined. They are intended to keep his political allies in the black fuels sector solvent. But the age of black fuels is ending, starting with coal. Oil is next. Oil prices are stagnant and likely to fall due to over supply and uncertain demand. Trump will have scant influence in altering oil prices. Deals for increasing oil production in Russia will only push prices down, which makes it harder to produce expensive North American oil from the Gulf, Alberta tar sands region, and the fracked fields of Texas, North Dakota and Ohio.

If, however, Trump impedes U.S. technological development in cleaner electrical production, and smarter, cleaner vehicles it would be a mess. It would mean that the United States is unable to compete with China, India, and Europe for market share in the century’s largest economic opportunity. It would be tantamount to President Teddy Roosevelt, at the start of the 20th century, telling France, Germany, and England, “Okay, you guys take the vehicle development and assembly industry. We’ll stick with making buggies.”

— Keith Schneider

Wire Tapping Trump Tower – Really?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his meetings with a Russian diplomat. President Trump spent Saturday morning trying to divert attention to that lapse.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his meetings with a Russian diplomat. President Trump spent Saturday morning trying to divert attention to that lapse.

SOMERSET, KY. — Another weekend. Another Trump tweet storm. The great global transition is pivoting around events in Washington.

The president now accuses the former president of ordering wire taps on Trump Tower during the election campaign. The president provided no factual support for the charge. President Obama, the FBIO director James Comey, and Obama’s former chief of intelligence deny that wiretaps were ordered. There’s also no record of requests to tap Trump’s phone that have yet appeared in the records of two courts that review such applications and grant permission. Trump wants his accusation to join the calvacade of election year intrigue that Congress is already investigating.

There’s a feeling, certainly in the television media, that the capital is on fire. It’s all to be anticipated given what Trump and his chief aide, Steve Bannon, disclosed two weeks ago.

At the Conservative Political Acion Committee annual conference in February the president and Bannon blew pure oxygen into the blast furnace of right wing fanaticism with their promised “deconstruction of the administrative state.” When I first heard it, I had a single thought. Trump and Bannon, mixing a ghastly idea with exquisitely concise use of the language, were publicly disclosing their diabolical plan to wreck the country. The intent is to apply maximum pressure on norms and values, interfere in standard practices of government, and disrupt how democracy functions in the United States.

Ever since that goal, formidable and dangerous, has been pursued with maniacal fervor. And though most of the 63 million American adults who voted for Trump in 2016 continue to be adamant supporters, the president will not succeed.

The reason is that Trump is in serious trouble of his own making. Each week that passes expresses how emotionally unprepared he is to serve as president of the United States. In every direction he looks — himself, his sons, his disorganized staff, Capitol Hill, the media, the electorate, the intelligence agencies, foreign capitals — Trump faces investigation and implacable critiques of his competence.

In no particular order — Trump is the subject of an increasingly focused federal probe about his ties to Vladimir Putin, and whether there was collusion between Russian intelligence agencies and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election. His top aides have been caught in lies about their contact with Russian officials. Millions of Americans are in the streets and in Congressional district offices demonstrating their opposition to Trump ideas. The president’s erratic, volatile, schoolboy narcissism has twisted his allies in the right wing media into rhetorical defensive knots. Republicans in Congress, one by one, express doubts about the president’s temperament.

Today right wing writers reporting for online news services you never heard of are busy defending the president’s charge that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower in New York. Trump’s tweets on the alleged wiretaps, like so many of his other provocative messages, serves the big objective — “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

This is a nutty, disorienting, dark public time in our lives. Have courage. We’ll get through it.

— Keith Schneider

Sessions Meeting with Russian Ambassador Latest Trump-Putin Disclosure

Actors in a developing constitutional crisis:  President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Actors in a developing constitutional crisis: President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

SOMERSET, KY — In mid-January Buzzfeed and CNN published separate reports on the existence of a secret dossier focused on the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The investigate findings, prepared by a former British intelligence officer for Republican opponents of the Trump campaign, included striking disclosures about Russian interference in the 2016 election. The document said Russia was intent on weakening the Clinton campaign, and helping to ensure Trump’s victory.

The dossier also noted regular meetings that amounted to collusion between Trump’s senior campaign advisors and Russian intelligence officials. The Russian program of hacking Democratic campaign emails and spraying American online reporting outlets with fake news, said the dossier, was authorized and overseen at the highest levels of Russia’s government.

U.S. newsrooms very quickly quashed the dossier’s details as unsubstantiated. President-elect Trump, who was a week away from his inauguration, flatly said it was all a lie perpetrated by the losing party. The dossier is available here online.

Well, in the seven weeks since the dossier was made public a sizable share of its most critical details have been confirmed by US intelligence agencies and in news reports. Russia did hack the election. The hacking and fake news was meant to aide Donald Trump’s campaign. Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence officials met regularly during the campaign. Russia’s clear interest was to end the economic sanctions instituted by President Obama that are wrecking the Russian economy.

The question of collusion between Putin and Trump to swing the U.S. election has not been confirmed, but it seems likely to be very soon. The details that have emerged so far, like paving stones laid on a straight path, lead to that conclusion. Even more telling details are on the way.

Almost all of the various disclosures about Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election and connections between Trump aides and Russian officials stem from leaks of classified intelligence. The U.S. domestic and international surveillance capacity is powerful and deep, as we learned from Edward Snowden. There is little doubt, given the clear details that have become public — like two specific meetings with the Russian ambassador that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied about during his confirmation hearing — that American intel on Trump, Putin, and senior aides on both sides is available and profoundly disturbing.

Intelligence agencies are cautious about how these revelations reach Americans. It is illegal to disclose classified information. My guess is that the various disclosures are coming through Congress, and perhaps through the FBI and the White House itself. The narrative they form is devastating to the president and the nation.

The U.S. appears to have within its vast data gathering and surveillance storage apparatus all of what it needs to make the case that Trump and Putin collaborated to influence the 2016 election. Several public points, drawn together, also help cement that conclusion. First, Trump expressed remarkably strong allegiance to Putin throughout the campaign. Second, Trump urged Russia, an adversary, to step up its hacking program when Wikileaks dumped the first big cache of Clinton campaign emails in July. Third, Trump asserted the 2016 election was rigged, a reckless fact that he couldn’t keep to himself and felt compelled to disclose at the time.

Like an ox-drawn plow cultivating wet spring fields, it will take several more weeks of disclosures for the political ground in Washington to be sufficiently prepared to initiate the next important act in this mammoth scandal — a thorough and independent investigation. The weekly disclosures are gradually melting Republican resistance to conduct that probe. Several Republican lawmakers are calling for Trump to release his tax returns. Several more have said an independent counsel investigation is needed. Very soon, recognizing they’ve been backed into a corner, Republican lawmakers will abandon their defense of the president and clear the way for a credible investigation.

My prediction: President Trump is gone by August.

— Keith Schneider

Pay Attention to the Putin-Trump Links

Huge marches and demonstrations have greeted President Trump's first weeks in office.

Huge marches and demonstrations have greeted President Trump’s first weeks in office.

SOMERSET, KY — Pay close attention to the Putin-Trump link. Like archaeologists wielding stiff brushes and dirt screens, investigators are uncovering and starting to assemble the dark bones and clay pottery shards of a momentous scandal. The president and his aides, mindful of the consequences, have sought evasions of every kind. They raised the red flag of fake news. They attacked U.S. intelligence agencies. They accused the news media of being the enemy of the American people. They fumed at leakers and lied about the contacts between top Trump aides and senior Russian intelligence officers.

Now President Trump is squealing. Really squealing. Reporters last week discovered the White House chief of staff contacted the FBI to kill the story — a story that the president and his aides contend is no story at all. The White House entreaties to the FBI look a lot like obstruction of justice and a cover-up. Even conservative Republican lawmakers are calling for an independent prosecutor and demanding that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump acolyte, recuse himself from all involvement.

In my experience working on big investigations in and outside Washington I’ve learned that when the squealing starts it is always – always – a measure of rising stress and culpability. This story is not going away. Every week invites a new disclosure. We already know that two narratives of conspiracy and secrecy influenced the 2016 election. One leads straight to the Kremlin. The other led to the Trump campaign. Mike Flynn, the deposed National Security Advisor, then tugged it into the White House.

Pretty soon now, with or without the assistance of Congressional investigators, the two threads will be tied together in the Oval Office. I remain more convinced of that than when I wrote this piece in December. And this one.

We know from the Edward Snowden leaks that U.S. intelligence agencies harbor profoundly powerful surveillance capacity. Intelligence agents, sworn to defend the United States from enemies foreign and domestic, have the data, tapes, communications, and transcripts that will show direct contact between Putin and Trump during the election. That disclosure may take some time. Trump is squealing. Soon he’ll be screaming because he knows that disclosure is on its way. Read More

Out of Disruption a Global Awakening

A national demonstration occurred spontaneously to protest the ban on Jallikattu, the harvest festival sport of "bull taming." Photo/Keith Schneider

A national demonstration occurred spontaneously to protest the ban on Jallikattu, the harvest festival sport of “bull taming.” Photo/Keith Schneider

CHENNAI, INDIA — The last time I can recall a civic awakening as big, gallant, and well-intentioned as the mammoth demonstrations occurring here in the capital of Tamil Nadu, and in American cities this weekend, I’d just turned 14 years old. On April 22, 1970 the United States celebrated the first Earth Day. Twenty million Americans participated. It was a day that led to environmental safeguards and new principles of managing the planet that have only grown stronger in the 47 years since.

As I write this at dusk the sound of chanting and drums carry across the crowded, low rise city. Not far from the hotel is Marina Beach, a long stretch of wide and warm sand along the Bay of Bengal that since Thursday has been the staging ground for festive demonstrations that, depending on the hour, attract 600,000 to one million people. The carnival atmosphere has lured parents with children, unescorted women, and working people — groups that typically do not participate in big street demonstrations.

Big demonstrations also were held in the United States. From what I read and hear from friends who participated on Saturday, people discovered similarly inspiring energy and behavior in the mammoth protests to rebuke President Trump.

Last night as I traveled back to Chennai from Coimbatore, one of Tamil Nadu’s biggest cities, it occurred to me that the big demonstrations here and in the United States, and the Trump inauguration, are tied together. Here’s how.

Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, was epicenter of eight days of demonstrations to support cultural strength. Photo/Keith Schneider

Marina Beach in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, was epicenter of eight days of demonstrations to support cultural strength. Photo/Keith Schneider

Both Trump’s election victory and the outbreak of civic resistance reflect the epic clash of competing ideas about how to thrive in a turbulent century. Trump is now the most visible emblem of the age of disruption that’s swept across the planet. Earth has become ecologically unstable and dangerous. More people in more places are being bludgeoned by droughts, floods, storms, earthquakes, wild fires, and plagues. A tide of refugees cross continents and seas to reach foreign shores. Markets shudder. Sources of energy for electricity and transportation are evolving from black fuels to invisible ones, causing instability in prices and resulting in tens of billions in stranded asset losses. Jobs are lost and nations become afraid. People succumb to the calls of national rebirth. They choose to close their borders (Brexit) and elect reckless candidates promising a renaissance of national glory. Read More