Trump administration reveals greenhouse gas rule for power plants to replace Obama-era plan

Key Points
  • The Trump administration announces its plan to replace an Obama-era rule to regulate planet-warming emissions from power plants.
  • The new plan will hand authority to states to create narrower rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired plants.
  • The Trump EPA's plan is projected to result in the release of far more of the gases than the Obama rule would have allowed.
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The Trump administration on Tuesday revealed its long-awaited plan to scale back an Obama-era rule designed to cut planet-warming emissions from the nation's power plants.

The proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency — the Affordable Clean Energy Rule — will hand authority to states to create their own narrower rules for coal-fired power plants. That would give states the option to impose looser restrictions that allow utilities to emit more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

The measure also stands to relieve pressure on the coal industry, a sector President Donald Trump has vowed to revive. Coal miners have seen their fortunes fade as coal-fired plants retire ahead of schedule, under pressure from cheap natural gas and falling prices for renewable energy projects.

Tougher regulation under former President Barack Obama put additional stress on the coal industry by requiring power plants in some cases to undertake expensive upgrades or shut down. On Tuesday, the EPA said Obama's plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants was "overly prescriptive and burdensome."

"The ACE Rule would restore the rule of law and empower states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide modern, reliable, and affordable energy for all Americans," EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.

Obama's signature Clean Power Plan established the first nationwide rules for carbon emissions. It set emissions goals for each state and gave them many options to reduce climate pollution, with the goal of cutting the nation's emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Trump is expected to tout the new Affordable Clean Energy Rule at a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday evening. Politico first reported the broad outline last week. The New York Times and Washington Post later reported details.

The new plan is projected to allow 12 times more greenhouse gas to be emitted over the next decade than under the Clean Power Plan, The Washington Post reported. However, the EPA said Tuesday that the Affordable Clean Energy Rule could reduce emissions by 33 to 34 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, more than the Obama plan.

The Affordable Clean Energy Rule would ask states to focus on requiring coal plants to take steps to run more efficiently. Specifically, states will have to submit plans to improve the heat rate of coal plants — or how much heat is necessary to generate a unit of electric power.

The EPA will not set a minimum level for heat rate improvements that states must establish for coal plants, Bill Wehrum, the agency's assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, told reporters. That means states can set very low improvement targets.

Some environmentalists and policy experts disagreed on whether that is the best way to reduce emissions.

"In regulating greenhouse gas pollution, the EPA is legally required to use the 'best system of emission reduction,' not a mediocre or downright counterproductive system of emission reduction," said Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU School of Law. "This proposal is an enormous step backwards, and it will have severe repercussions for public health and the climate."

Obama's Clean Power Plan allowed states to meet their goals by taking measures that would push coal out of the energy mix, including adding more solar and wind farms or converting coal plants to natural gas facilities.

Wehrum said the Trump administration believes Obama's EPA exceeded its authority by attempting to regulate the wider power grid. The EPA's authority is limited to establishing rules that require utilities to address emissions at the source, the power plants themselves, in the view of Wehrum and the Trump administration.

The reach of its authority has not yet been determined because the court never reached a decision on whether to overturn Obama's Clean Power Plan.

The Supreme Court delayed implementation of the Clean Power Plan while a federal court considered a lawsuit brought by more than half of U.S. states and industry stakeholders.

Some of those stakeholders cheered the replacement rule on Tuesday.

"Through the replacement rule, the EPA has returned to a lawful framework for regulation of power plant emissions," Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association said in a statement. "The Clean Air Act created a system of shared authority by EPA and the states, and this proposal appropriately reflects that construct."

Trump cannot simply throw out the Clean Power Plan because the EPA has an obligation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. That obligation is underpinned by a pair of Supreme Court rulings that recognize the EPA's authority to regulate climate-warming emissions and the agency's 2009 conclusion that those gases are a threat to public health and welfare.

"I think this is a rule designed to technically comply with the obligation the EPA is under to regulate CO2 without actually being a serious policy effort," said David Konisky, an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

The EPA's revision also allows the administration to delay taking action on climate change because environmental groups are likely to challenge the rule in court, Konisky said.

"Every part of America and the world is going through traumatic changes in climate activity, with devastating consequences in too many cases," said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led a 16-state coalition that opposed scrapping Obama's Clean Power Plan.

"We strongly oppose the Trump Administration's backsliding in the fight to preserve our children's future and our planet."

Asked about potential lawsuits, Wehrum said he believes EPA's new approach is on much firmer ground than the Clean Power Plan.

Tuesday's announcements starts a 60-day period for public comment on the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. If it is implemented, it would likely take several years for state-level environmental regulators to devise plans and get approval from the EPA.

Additionally, the EPA will revise related rules that currently require plants to conduct environmental reviews when they make upgrades. The process, known as New Source Review, was designed to prevent plants from making changes that lead to more pollution.

Earlier this month, the administration rolled back plans to raise fuel efficiency standards and tighten greenhouse gas limits for autos. The transportation and power sectors are the two biggest contributors to the nation's emissions, together accounting for more than half of the U.S. footprint.