The Trump administration on Wednesday issued its long-awaited replacement for former President Barack Obama’s most ambitious climate change regulation, rolling back rules in an effort to salvage the declining role of coal in the nation’s power supply.
Critics charge that the proposal would cripple the fight against climate change, which has emerged as a major issue for Democrats in the 2020 presidential race.
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The Environmental Protection Agency’s rule is a part of the Trump administration campaign to erase greenhouse gas regulations designed to stave off the worst effects of climate change. And it is the first in a litany of rollbacks due out this year that will restrict EPA’s regulatory powers, with new rules due out soon that will ease regulations on vehicle emissions, oil and gas wells and other types of power plant pollution.
The new final rule, which was signed by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, eliminates the Obama EPA’s targets that would have required states to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, which would have hit coal power plants hard. It replaces them with a narrower plan that allows states to upgrade the efficiency of power plants to drive carbon dioxide reductions.
“Our [new rule] will incentivize new technologies that can ensure coal plants will be part of our clean future,” Wheeler said at a signing event at EPA headquarters.
Green groups quickly slammed the new regulation and promised to challenge it in court.
“President Trump’s dirty power scheme would do nothing to address the rising economic costs and the increasing dangers wrought by climate change,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Instead, it would give polluters free rein and doom future generations to a dangerously hostile world.”
The Obama EPA plan, which was the centerpiece of its climate change efforts and was stayed by the Supreme Court in 2016, would have pushed states to reduce their dependence on coal in favor of natural gas and renewables. Republican critics had argued that plan overstepped EPA’s authority, and current EPA officials say the new plan’s narrower scope fits within the “four corners” of the Clean Air Act.
The new regulation, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, is also an effort to send a lifeline to the nation’s fleet of aging coal plants, which have been closing at an ever-faster pace because of competition from cleaner, cheaper electricity produced by natural gas and renewables like wind and solar power.
States do not have to meet an emissions target, but EPA estimated the ACE rule will lead to CO2 emissions reductions of 11 million tons by 2030, or around 0.5 percent of the electric sector’s 2017 emissions. But EPA also predicted emissions will actually fall far faster — by as much as 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — due to the market forces that are driving electric utilities away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables.
However, in one notable change, EPA yanked a measure it had included in last year’s proposed version that would have allowed power producers to sidestep existing rules that require pollution improvements when they upgrade their plants — rules that utilities have long sought to eliminate. EPA is expected to finish a separate rulemaking on that in the coming months.
Environmentalists and climate scientists say the EPA plan falls far short of the dramatic cuts that are needed in the next several years to avoid the worst effects of a warming planet, rising seas and more destructive weather events.
“The final ACE rule will yield virtually no reductions” of carbon dioxide, said Joseph Goffman, the architect of the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
The new rule could actually have “rebound effect” and lead some plants to emit more pollution by making it more economical to run coal fired power generation.
One study published in April in the journal Environmental Research Letters projected it would lead to 28 percent of coal plants emitting more pollution in 2030 compared to having no policy at all. National CO2 emissions would decrease by 0.8 percent in 2030, the study calculated, an outcome on the lower end of EPA’s own scale.
The ACE rule is very different structurally from the Obama administration rule. It directs states to decide whether and how to require each coal plant within their border to install efficiency upgrades to reduce their emissions. States can take into account factors such as a plant’s “remaining useful life,” and potentially avoid imposing regulations at all if the plant is to be shut down in the near future and could not recoup the costs of an efficiency upgrade.
In its most important change from its proposal issued last year, EPA pulled changes to the major permitting program. That New Source Review program says any significant alterations to power plants require the owner to obtain a permit, usually from state regulators. NSR was designed to prevent sources from backsliding on pollution, but industry has complained for decades that it is a slow, cumbersome process that delays some upgrades for years while increasing costs.
EPA’s proposal issued last August would have allowed plants to sidestep NSR permitting in order to install the ACE rule’s required efficiency upgrades. Critics argued EPA does not have the authority to ignore the NSR program, and that doing so would remove a key protection against pollution increases.
Now, the matter will be decided in a later rulemaking.
The ACE rule is expected to face significant legal challenges from Democratic state attorneys general, environmental and public health groups and potentially even some utilities that have already moved away from coal.
It is unclear whether the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will handle the challenges, will have time to weigh in before the 2020 election.
Congressional Democrats may also pursue a Congressional Review Act resolution to nullify the rule, although it is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate and almost certainly would be subject to a veto from Trump.
“CRA is always in play, but that would be symbolic too because the president has to enact it. But we may do it anyway to everybody in the Senate on the record,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
“We’re going to explore all of our options in court and in Congress,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “We’ll have to make a calculated decision, but he must be stopped.”
Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.