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EPA’s new power plant rule shows Trump is fine with ‘runaway climate change,’ green groups say

Groups cite rise in carbon emissions and premature deaths from EPA plan.

The Trump administration released a proposal on August 21, 2018 that would replace the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The Trump administration released a proposal on August 21, 2018 that would replace the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Trump administration released a plan on Tuesday to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at existing electric power plants as part of an effort to roll back President Barack Obama’s signature plan to tackle the power generation sector’s impact on climate change.

The new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal, dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, would provide states with greater authority in determining how to cut greenhouse gases from the power sector.

Environmental groups, however, universally condemned the EPA’s new plan for regulating greenhouse gas emissions, portraying it as a handout to coal companies and predicting states, with their new latitude under the plan, will do little to reduce power plant emissions.

During his campaign, President Donald Trump made dismantling Obama’s Clean Power Plan his top environmental policy priority.

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The administration claims that the ACE rule, which must undergo a public comment period, “will significantly decrease bureaucratic red tape and compliance costs, keeping American energy affordable and competitive on the world stage,” the White House said. The EPA estimates that the ACE rule could reduce compliance costs by up to $6.4 billion compared to the Clean Power Plan.

But by the administration’s own calculations, the plan will be a public health disaster — with thousands more in expected premature deaths and asthma cases — and it will cost the economy billions.

Given the shifts to natural gas-fired generation and renewable energy, the EPA expects the ACE rule to provide greenhouse gas emissions reductions similar to the reductions that would have occurred under Obama’s Clean Power Plan, William Wehrum, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Regulation said during a conference call on Tuesday. He also added that the ACE rule will give state regulators more latitude in deciding the types of emissions controls for each power plant in their states.

Prior to Congress passing the Clean Air Act of 1970, states were given greater flexibility in addressing air pollutants. “The states’ performance under that looser regime was disappointing and the air remained dirty,” Howard Fox, an attorney with Earthjustice, said Tuesday on a conference call with other environmental advocates.

Because the air was not getting cleaner prior to the passage of the Clean Air Act, Congress was forced to step in and require the EPA set emissions targets and then require the states to figure out how to achieve those reductions, Fox said.

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The United States outgrew the plant-by-plant regulatory approach, as proposed in the ACE plan, to fighting air pollution decades ago, David Doniger, senior strategic director for the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said on the same call.

Together with the Trump administration’s proposed rollback of auto emissions standards, the EPA’s proposed ACE plan shows that the administration “is just fine with runaway climate change,” Doniger said.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants. Following the Supreme Court ruling, the EPA determined in 2009 that six greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons,  perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride — endangered public health.

That court ruling and the EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding led to the agency proposing the Clean Power Plan during Obama’s second term. The plan established a nationwide limit on carbon emission from existing power plants that was expected to result in a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. The plan also would have other positive impacts such as reducing deadly soot and smog.

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Greenpeace USA Climate & Energy Campaign Director Janet Redman described Trump’s new plan as a “poorly veiled attempt to secure a few votes with a backward-looking policy that could end up costing American lives.

With Trump’s new plan, he is clearly demonstrating a willingness “to pollute our air and undermine families’ health to play the hero for a few coal industry executives,” Redman said. “The administration’s attempts to resuscitate the coal industry will lead to even more destructive climate catastrophes, air pollution illnesses and fatalities, and U.S. workers left out of the renewable energy future.”

In early 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court put Obama’s Clean Power Plan on hold. The Supreme Court’s decision came as a surprise, as it is unusual for the high court to block federal regulations that have been upheld by an appeals court. In the case of the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected requests by states and industry to halt implementation of the plan.

A Donald Trump sign hangs in the window in the town of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, near the West Virginia border on March 1, 2018. Waynesburg, once a thriving coal industry center, has struggled to find its footing under Trump and previous presidents. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A Donald Trump sign hangs in the window in the town of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, near the West Virginia border on March 1, 2018. Waynesburg, once a thriving coal industry center, has struggled to find its footing under Trump and previous presidents. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With the ACE plan, the Trump administration said it is following a cooperative federalism approach that lets states decide whether they want to require owners of existing power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump is scheduled to join supporters in Charleston, West Virginia, for a political rally on Tuesday night to celebrate the ACE rule.

But the ACE rule is unlikely to be enough to reverse the decline of U.S. coal industry, which has continued to see its domestic customer base shrink. Environmental groups view the overturning of the Clean Power Plan as more of a political gesture by the Trump administration to retain the support of residents in the coalfields of Appalachia and others located across the nation.

Along with an expected failure to send the coal industry on a long-term recovery, the ACE rule includes an acknowledgment that the plan would lead to up to 1,400 premature deaths annually. The Clean Power Plan, on the other hand, was projected to help fight climate change as well as protect human health. The Clean Power Plan would help avoid between 1,500 and 3,600 premature deaths annually by 2030, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

“President Trump and Acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler teamed up with their friends in the fossil fuel industry to release a plan that would open the floodgates to more carbon pollution across the country,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), said Tuesday in a statement.

According to Beyer, the EPA’s own estimates released with this plan say it will lead to the premature deaths of thousands, “an outcome which no government official should be willing to accept.”

The EPA said it will take comment on the proposal for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register and will hold a public hearing.