Policy

Trump EPA answer to Obama Clean Power Plan ‘does virtually nothing‘ to curb CO2

The new rule combines a Clean Power Plan repeal with new, less stringent emissions reductions guidelines

A flag hangs over an entrance to the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington on April 22, 2017. The EPA finalized a rule Wednesday that would replace the Obama administration’s signature carbon emissions plan, scrapped by President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The EPA finalized a rule Wednesday that would replace the Obama administration’s signature carbon emissions plan and give states more flexibility in emissions reduction, even as environmental advocates worry about the potential for increased pollution and threaten to sue.

The Affordable Clean Energy rule is the Trump EPA’s answer to the 2015 Clean Power Plan, which for the first time set nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants across the country.

The new rule combines a repeal of the Clean Power Plan with new, less stringent emissions reductions guidelines for states and power plants. The Clean Power Plan itself never went effect after 27 states and industry advocates filed a lawsuit, resulting in a stay by the Supreme Court. The case has remained in abeyance as the EPA wrote the ACE rule.

The Clean Power Plan was too “federal-heavy”, and the new rule will rebalance the role of states and the federal government in emissions reduction, EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum said during the announcement of the rule at the agency’s headquarters.

States were required under the Clean Power Plan to devise strategies to start cutting emissions by 2022 from power plants and other high carbon-emitting energy sources, with a target of reducing carbon output by 32 percent below 2005 levels.

EPA estimates that its new rule rule would result in carbon emissions reductions from the power sector by as much as 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, including reductions already underway, some in anticipation of the previous plan.

Tomás Carbonell, director of regulatory policy and lead attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund’s clean air program, called the 35 percent carbon emission reduction touted by the EPA “deeply” misleading.

“This rule does not require any particular amount of pollution reduction by any particular date,” he said. “Further, EPA’s projections consist almost entirely of reductions that would take place in the absence of the rule — and that the rule would do nothing to secure or to build upon.”

The agency also estimates its new plan will lead to annual net benefits of $120 million to $730 million, also by 2030, including in climate and health benefits relative to compliance costs. The Obama administration had estimated the Clean Power Plan would generate an estimated $26 billion to $45 billion in net benefits by 2030.

Public health advocates warn that the new plan doesn’t adequately respond to the scale of emissions reduction needed to combat climate change and point to the EPA’s own data showing the rule could lead to as many as 1,400 premature deaths.

The Obama EPA estimated the Clean Power Plan would have prevented 3,600 deaths, 1,700 heart attacks and 90,000 asthma attacks.

The ACE rule doesn’t place specific emissions caps or targets on power plants. EPA’s role in the new rule would be to determine the best technology for emissions reductions and communicate that to the states.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency determined that the best way to reduce power plant emissions is to make them more efficient. The EPA rejected certain technologies including carbon capture and sequestration or fuel switching as a means for reducing emissions because, he said, they’re not cost-effective. He said the rule would give states the flexibility to devise their emissions plans in line with their own energy and environmental priorities.

“The Clean Power Plan would have asked low- and middle-income Americans to bear the cost of the previous administration’s climate plan,” Wheeler said, flanked by several GOP lawmakers and administration officials at the EPA. “It also hurts the competitiveness of American business.”

Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., who was at the EPA for the announcement, said it would ensure that the mines in her state will stay open and that coal will continue to “keep our lights on and our house on.”

Coal industry support

Environmental advocates have from the onset called the ACE rule a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry and warned that it would allow more emissions compared to what the Clean Power Plan would have achieved in reducing carbon pollution and combating climate change.

“They have shown a callous disregard for EPA’s mission, a pattern of climate science denial, and an inexcusable indifference to the consequences of climate change,” former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a news release. “With this rule, EPA does virtually nothing to address its obligation to regulate carbon dioxide and confirms its support of the coal industry at the expense of our health and our children’s future.”

The Clean Power Plan, which McCarthy helped finalize, would have been the Obama administration’s central vehicle for meeting its obligations under the Paris climate agreement reached in 2015. President Donald Trump has moved to withdraw the U.S. from the plan.

Critics of the new plan say that giving states more leeway to control their own emissions as the ACE rule does, allows certain regions to dodge regulating pollution, and abdicates the federal government’s responsibility.

“The Trump plan is founded upon a warped reinterpretation of the Clean Air Act that allows states to decide whether or not to regulate one of the largest sources of carbon emissions in our country,” said Senate Environment and Public Works ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del. “Once again, we see that this EPA is manipulating the very meaning of ‘cooperative federalism’ to whatever definition benefits industry the most, even if that means hurting public health. “

Green groups have warned that the new EPA plan does not adequately respond to the scale of emissions reduction needed to combat climate change and point to the agency’s own data showing the rule could lead to hundreds of premature deaths because of increased emissions.

“The whole thing is an excuse to carry out long-held desires held by some in the industry to weaken core clean air programs,” Carbonell said.

He said the group will “vigorously oppose” the changes and “pursue every option available to prevent that action from moving forward.”

Repealing the Clean Power Plan has been a priority for conservatives, especially lawmakers from coal, oil and natural gas producing states who have called the rule a form of federal overreach and an impingement on states’ rights. Trump’s ACE rule delivers on a campaign promise partly meant to appease coal-mining communities and conservative states that rely on fossil fuels for their economy.

“The Affordable Clean Energy rule is good news for Wyoming,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said in a news release. “The so-called ‘Clean Power Plan’ would have mandated the shutdown of power plants and increased energy costs for families in Wyoming and across the country.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.