The Energy 202: Pruitt plays to GOP base by repealing the Clean Power Plan

On Monday, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt announced he will move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the signature Obama-era climate strategy to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"Tomorrow, in Washington, D.C., I'll be signing a proposed rule to withdraw the so-called Clean Power Plan of the past administration, and thus begin the effort to withdraw that rule," Pruitt told a crowd. In keeping with President Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric that promised a revival of the fossil-fuel industry, Pruitt vowed: "The war against coal is over."

Pruitt's proposal, obtained by The Washington Post last week, is expected to declare that the Obama administration acted outside its legal authority by attempting to regulate greenhouse emissions from power plants. It doesn't seek to replace the plan yet, instead aiming to first get public input.

But let's put aside for second what just happened, or is about to.

Let's focus for a minute on the where and with whom.

Pruitt went to Hazard, Kentucky, to make his announcement in front of coal miners. He stood on stage with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R, the state's senior senator.

McConnell's appearance with Pruitt came at the same time that the majority leader was fending off questions about the feud between Trump and McConnell's colleague, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Trump has also targeted McConnell on Twitter. But the savvy Kentucky Republican had no qualms about appearing with one of the president's key Cabinet-level officials in his home state for the landmark announcement.

Behind only Wyoming and West Virginia, Kentucky, where Pruitt was born, is the third top coal-producing state in the nation and McConnell has long been a champion of the industry.

"As EPA administrator, Scott is working to strike an appropriate balance between protecting water and air, and preventing the kind of job-killing overregulation," McConnell said, according to CBS News, adding that Pruitt has been working to "stop the war on coal in its tracks."

What's going on: Although only 32 percent of U.S. adults approve of the Trump administration's handling of environmental issues, according to a Gallup poll conducted in June, a large majority - 69 percent - of Republicans favor it.

The overall numbers, however, belie the degree to which promoting fossil fuels is a winning issue with the GOP base. Just as Trump is playing to his base in tweets and speeches, so are lieutenants such as Pruitt in their actions.

For Republicans such as McConnell, Pruitt is not only the enforcer of Trump's deregulatory environmental agenda. He is also the avatar, the public face of it, for the GOP base.

Why are Republicans so eager to embrace Pruitt? A big part of their motive is economic. A few swing states crucial to Trump's margin of victory in the electoral college - Pennsylvania and Ohio - have a disproportionate number of voters working in fossil-fuel industries, while a few others - Iowa and Indiana - are full of farmers. Many of them were worried about how the Obama administration's water pollution regulation, called the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, would hamstring the agriculture business.

When discussing recent reports that he meets far more frequently with industry groups than he does with environmental organizations, Pruitt said, "What about those farmers and ranchers in Iowa? What about those farmers and ranchers in North Dakota or Kentucky?"

Addressing his audience at the Kentucky Farm Bureau on Monday, Pruitt answered his own question: "And the answer is, you count more."

EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis in an interview Monday that Pruitt chose to speak about his plans in Kentucky because coal workers had a direct economic stake in policies aimed at curbing emissions from coal burning.

"He's speaking directly to people in coal county about how the rule negatively affected the whole industry," Bowman said.

Similarly, when Pruitt visited Grand Forks, North Dakota for a roundtable discussion about agriculture, GOP lawmakers there were eager to be seen praising Pruitt as a boon to the state's economy:

- "I applaud Administrator Pruitt's concern for our farmers and support his stance that getting a permanent fix in Congress is the best way to ensure farmers don't have to worry about this anymore," Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota, said.

- "Family farms cannot bear the cost of federal overreach," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said. "We've advanced efforts in the current Congress to provide regulatory relief for our ag producers, and I appreciate Administrator Pruitt's commitment to working with us on that front." (Hoeven later criticized Pruitt for not opening that meeting to the public.)

Part of the warm GOP embrace is also cultural. Even Republicans who don't live in coal country want to signal they will stand up against policies unfavorable to the industry - including those meant to curb global warming.

"Even for those who don't live in areas that are dependent upon energy-industry jobs," said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based GOP consultant who helped reelect McConnell, "the energy issues became a line in the sand: If you can't stand with us on energy, you can't stand with us, period."

Indeed, coal jobs have been declining for a long time. Three decades ago, there were three times as many miners in the United States as there are now. That means coal miners should be a less powerful voting bloc than they were in the 1980's.

But Trump's success suggests that may not be the case. Even if there are fewer coal miners overall, there appear to be more GOP voters who take coal miners' priorities to heart. Instead, opposition to environmental priorities of Democrats has been on the rise among Republicans.

Take, for example, the big gap in concern about climate change between Democrats and Republicans that widened further over the course of Obama's presidency.

In 2007, 55 percent of Democrats said they worried "a great deal" about global warming, again according to a Gallup survey, versus 24 percent of Republicans who were worried, too. In 2017, that gap grew to a 66-to-18-percent split between Democrats and Republicans.

Trump exploited that chasm during the 2016 campaign by repeatedly hammering Hillary Clinton for her gaffe that "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

All of which means that Appalachian communities like those in Kentucky "perceive a real disdain for their cultural and their lifestyle," Jennings said.