United States Project

Why isn’t local media covering the Clean Power Plan?

August 18, 2017
Image via Pixabay.

A daily newspaper in Texas published an editorial about a month ago arguing that any changes President Trump makes to Barack Obama’s climate-change plan shouldn’t include propping up the coal industry at the expense of other energy sources: “The EPA has no business in picking winners and losers.”

“We’re in the middle of oil country,” says Roy Maynard, a senior editor at the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “We’re looking at that from a free-market approach. The government doesn’t need to be propping up any of these industries.”

The Morning Telegraph has a staff of about 20, and “we write about energy quite a bit,” Maynard tells CJR. It’s a rare exception for local media, which has explained in detail how changes in US healthcare policy may trickle down but rarely has delved into policies related to climate change.

Coverage of the Clean Power Plan has mostly come from national sources such as Bloomberg, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. The CPP was mentioned once in a recent Houston Chronicle piece on the halting of construction of two nuclear reactors, which provide carbon-free power. And a popular Washington Post story from April, citing the original work of two local TV stations, explained how an Eastern Kentucky coal-mining museum was installing solar panels to save on energy costs and feed power back into the town’s grid.

The irony was obvious, but the coverage didn’t mention the CPP. Local coverage rarely has. Many editors and news directors have shied away from complex stories soaked in scientific specifics and legalese.

The Clean Power Plan was one of Barack Obama’s signature accomplishments, but the Supreme Court blocked it a year later, after more than two dozen states and hundreds of companies and lobbyists filed suit against it. The plan, which would have required states to submit their own plans for limiting carbon emissions by nearly one-third in aggregate by 2030, wouldn’t have officially gone into effect until 2022, a framework that Scientific American argued probably wasn’t significant enough anyway, and all of that was before Donald Trump vowed to repeal and replace it with the help of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general sued the EPA 14 times.

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Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia delayed for at least 60 more days any progress in the case, during which the EPA will continue to review the CPP and other EPA rules, per Trump’s Energy Independence Executive Order issued in March. According to E&E News, only 16 states support the plan, a mostly unsurprising mix of blue and red states that have a lot to gain or lose in terms of energy production and jobs and economic growth.

It’s not the easiest story to tell.

“It’s a challenge to explain a very scientific issue in a way an average person will understand,” says Rebecca Leber, a reporter at Mother Jones who’s written about the CPP. “The Clean Power Plan is a complicated policy, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all policy. When it comes to reporting on the more local level, businesses have had all kinds of responses to the Clean Power Plan and the larger issue of responding to climate change. When reporting on the business side, it’s not as black and white as the Trump administration puts it.”

Local reporters should ask politicians and business owners they cover how sweeping changes in energy policy may affect where they live and work. Resources are available online, Leber says, including the 2014 National Climate Change Assessment, which breaks down evidence of global warming into regions, so journalists can pinpoint risks that most affect their audience. The 2016 assessment, just released, concluded, among other findings, that some extreme weather has been caused by climate change. Heat waves and floods and hurricanes don’t discriminate. Power plants may open or close. Factories that build solar panels may replace working coal mines. News consumers need to know how the changing environment affects them and their families.

“I’m hesitant to say national reporters are much better at covering this issue,” Leber says. “Plenty of outlets could improve their coverage at the national level. At the local level, the challenge is always resources and time. There could always be more climate coverage.”

Kevin Dale is helping fill that void. The former Denver Post news director is now executive editor of Cronkite News, which has offices in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, and includes among its 10 verticals sustainability coverage. Through collaboration with the DC team, student journalists work with experienced editors to link national policy decisions to mostly enterprise stories based throughout the Southwest, including topics such as extreme weather, water usage, and mining. Local news outlets that otherwise couldn’t afford such coverage subscribe to CN.

Dale’s students haven’t written extensively about the CPP yet, “mainly because we’re not exactly sure what the recommendation is going to be,” he says. “But we have a team of student reporters who focus on those issues—climate change, mining in the state. We keep a pretty close eye on that.”

When it comes to reporting on the more local level, businesses have had all kinds of responses to the Clean Power Plan and the larger issue of responding to climate change.”

In both Colorado and Arizona, mining is a huge economic driver, and the CPP could affect how much coal and oil and copper stays in the ground, and how national treasures such as Grand Canyon National Park are preserved.

“There are a huge number of people interested in recreational activities and the environment, so whether it’s in Colorado with natural-gas fracking, or coal plants, or uranium mining at the Grand Canyon, all of that stuff coming together, it’s important to readers and viewers,” Dale says. “I’ve never found that people weren’t interested in it.”

Whether his reporters, or any reporters, are covering an issue like the CPP, or the Affordable Care Act, or any similarly enormous and far-reaching national policy, Dale says he prefers to focus on local impact.

“The same is true with healthcare, where you can get into these policy fights back and forth, but what do they mean to the people on the ground?” he says. “That’s the coverage I want to see more of, and less on the political bickering over the bill.”

A recent poll showed that only about 1 in 8 Americans understood there is a scientific consensus that man-made climate change is indeed real. This was after a Bloomberg Businessweek story a few years ago described how an entire island nation is being swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean, and a recent New York Times piece on how rising sea levels could destroy the East Coast real estate market. Just last month, a New York magazine cover story terrifyingly detailed just about everything that can go wrong if the planet keeps getting hotter.

It may take years for the courts to sort out the CPP, and journalists can’t afford to wait, Leber says.

“If you look at what the Trump administration has prioritized in its rollback, it’s been climate and environmental policy that they’ve made the biggest moves on,” Leber says. “Just because the Clean Power Plan itself was stalled in court, the larger issue of what the government isn’t doing now on climate change is a huge story, where there’s pretty much endless angles and investigative stories to be done.”

Justin Doom is a journalist and teacher based in Brooklyn. He was an energy reporter at Bloomberg News and recently completed a white paper on clean-energy investing for Columbia Business School’s Tamer Center for Social Enterprise. Find him on twitter @justindoom.