The Trump administration on Tuesday unveiled its plan to replace former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan regulations, which imposed new restrictions on coal-fired power plants that President Trump vowed to unravel.
The new plan will set off a huge battle with environmental groups, who argue it would exacerbate global warming and have promised to fight it in court.
The plan is being called the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule and was signed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Monday.
Trump administration officials hailed the new rule as a much needed upgrade to the heavily restrictive Obama policies that sought to significantly cut carbon emissions from coal-fired plants that didn’t meet modern pollution standards.
Coal is a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally. Officials pointed to the Obama-era standards as proof of an administrative bias against coal, as the standards ultimately pushed to phase out the fossil fuel in favor of cleaner energy such as renewable energy and natural gas.
Trump is expected to tout the new rules during an appearance Tuesday night in West Virginia. The state is the second largest producer of coal in the country.
“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,” Wheeler said in a statement.
“Today’s proposal provides the states and regulated community the certainty they need to continue environmental progress while fulfilling President Trump’s goal of energy dominance.”
About 40 percent of U.S. coal-fired power plants have closed or have plans to shutter, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
The new plan offers states more flexibility in determining the level of regulations that coal plants must meet, allowing them to submit a draft plan to the EPA on how they would like to regulate in state coal plants. The EPA said that previous reporting that states could offer coal plants the ability to opt out of meeting pollution criteria altogether is not part of the final rule.
The plan would also offer coal plants opportunities to upgrade facilities to produce more energy with less fuel, while eliminating a review process that mandates older power plants mitigate their emissions levels.
The coal industry has argued that upgrades to plants are costly, and have led to plant closings. The administration’s overhaul of climate change regulations could help coal plants stay in operation longer because they’ll be able to continue to function without having to invest in modernization controls.
It suggests that carbon emissions under the new rule could be cut to 34 percent below 2005 levels, but does not offer a firm timeline. Instead the EPA says it could occur once “states fully implement the new rule.”
That compares to a 2030 goal under Obama’s plan of hitting a 32 percent decline below 2005 levels.
Administration officials on a call with reporters Tuesday said a changing world was responsible for why they were not offering firm figures on how emissions would be cut under ACE.
“The law is required to give states primary authority — that flexibility and that latitude means it’s difficult to predict what states are going to do because they have their own decision to make,” said Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. “As compared to the [Clean Power Plan] we believe there is going to be little difference in how that rule would play out.”
He added: “Things have changed a lot since the CPP was put in place — the industry continues to transform before our eyes.”
In 2017, coal made up 14 percent of U.S. energy consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal consumption in the U.S., the top consumer of the energy source, peaked in 2007 and has declined since.
Wheeler said the new rule would ultimately benefit energy consumers, arguing that the Clean Power Plan would have ultimately risen prices.
“CPP’s overreach would have driven up energy prices for consumers and businesses alike,” said Wheeler on a call with reporters Tuesday. “We are proposing a better plan — it respects the rule of law and will enable states to build affordable, clean, reliable energy portfolios.”
Representatives of the coal industry praised the announcement.
“The policy put forward by the previous administration was an illegal attempt to impose a political agenda on the country’s power system, to create what it called ‘a new energy economy,’” said Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association in a statement.
“Advancing the nation’s environmental protections does not have to come at the expense of American families, risking the reliability of our grid and sidestepping the law. The EPA and the Trump administration should be applauded for articulating a clear, legal proposal that considers the interests of all Americans.”
But critics say the new plan offers no real pollution-cutting value and fails to address the main purpose of the plan: climate change.
In fact, the phrase “climate change” is nearly absent from the draft, appearing only on one of the nearly 300 pages of the proposal.
By submitting the plan, the administration is essentially acknowledging the threat of climate change to human health, reiterating a 2009 EPA decision.
However, critics fear that the new rule will not be effective at cutting carbon emissions, one of the main contributors to climate change.
“What is most galling and appalling to me about this rule, is it creates a huge loophole in current clean air protections, that is essentially a huge gimme to coal-fire power plants,” former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Monday, commenting on a leaked version of the proposal. “Why is EPA selling out its emission to protect health and our kids future, by pretending it’s meeting the agency’s legal responsibility to take action on climate change with this proposal?”
While the Clean Power Plan was the first federal carbon-pollution restriction imposed on U.S. power plants, the Supreme Court put its implementation on temporary hold in 2016 and it was never officially implemented.
The Trump administration has long signaled a desire to change the policy but is legally bound to provide an alternative.
Trump’s EPA argues that the Clean Power Plan exceeded the agency’s authority and illegally sought to regulate the power sector at large — not just carbon pollution — and that compliance costs for the coal industry would be overbearing and have negligible effects on climate change.
The administration has already taken other steps toward supporting the coal industry.
Trump ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry in June to take “immediate steps” to prevent the further closures of coal and nuclear power plants around the U.S. The draft plan ordered grid operators to buy electricity from coal and nuclear plants that are at risk of closing due to cheaper energy available from renewable energy sources and natural gas.
BY MIRANDA GREEN – 08/21/18