California sues to stop Trump rollback of Obama-era restrictions on coal-burning power plants

Coal-fired power plant in Maryland
California and other states are suing to stop Trump administration policies that would help protect coal-fired power plants, like this one in Maryland.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

California and a coalition of 21 other states on Tuesday sued to block the Trump administration’s attempt to gut restrictions on coal-burning power plants, limits that were central to President Obama’s climate change policy.

State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said Trump’s effort to dismantle 2015’s Clean Power Plan undercuts efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and allows the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon its legal responsibility to crack down on air pollution.

“The EPA and the Trump administration are backsliding once again, bending over backwards for special interests at the expense of the public’s interest,” Becerra told reporters during a morning press conference in Sacramento. “California doesn’t have time for flimsy fake substitutes to clean power. Our health, our economy, our future as the engine of prosperity and innovation in America are at stake.”

The federal lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington by the 22-state coalition, with New York taking the lead, as well as major cities that included Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.


The legal action is just the latest effort by California to block the Trump administration’s dismantling of federal environmental protections adopted by Obama and other previous administrations.

In July, California circumvented the Trump administration’s efforts to relax tailpipe pollution regulations by reaching a deal with four major automakers to gradually increase fuel-efficiency standards.

California has filed more than 50 lawsuits over Trump administration actions on a variety of issues, including more than two dozen challenges to policies proposed by the EPA, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other federal agencies responsible for setting energy and fuel-efficiency standards.

In late March, a federal judge in Northern California struck down the administration’s repeal of a rule aimed at increasing oil and gas companies’ royalty payments, and in April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco put up a new roadblock to the administration’s plans to reverse an Obama-era decision to ban a popular pesticide suspected of harming infants’ brain development.

The state has prevailed in at least 15 of those lawsuits, and Becerra said he expects to be victorious again challenging Trump’s attempt to roll back restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

“We have confidence not just in the law, but that the science and facts are with us on this case,” Becerra said.

The Trump administration’s proposed plan, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, eliminates what had been an aggressive nationwide effort to reduce the energy sector’s carbon footprint. The move is also designed to make good on Trump’s campaign promise to revive the nation’s coal industry.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The spokesperson defended the revised policy, however, saying the “EPA worked diligently to ensure we produced a solid rule, that we believe will be upheld in the courts” and noted that the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was successfully blocked from being implemented after a legal challenge.

After the Trump administration rule was announced in June, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to join with other states in taking legal action to block the new policy.

Newsom joined Becerra at Tuesday’s press conference along with state Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols.

The governor warned that climate change threatened both lives and livelihoods, and criticized the Trump administration for failing to take action and sending the nation backward.

“All I will ask to this administration: How can you look in the eyes of your grandkids and kids and say that anything you are doing is about them,” Newsom said. “They are in the short-term business. They are absolutely, absolutely neglecting the next generation.”

Newsom said Trump’s tenure in the White House has made him “miss” the bipartisan environmental advances made while President Nixon, a Republican, was in the White House, including adopting the Endangered Species Act and creating the EPA.

The governor said that California’s economy has thrived while the state has taken aggressive efforts to curtail carbon emissions and curtail climate change.

“We see where the world is going and where the future lies,” Newsom said.

The 1970s-era Clean Air Act requires the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and the Trump administration may have difficulty convincing the courts that its Affordable Clean Energy rule does so.

Older coal-burning plants that faced almost certain obsolescence under the Clean Power Plan would be allowed to stay open with modest modifications under the Trump administration plan.

Energy experts doubt that Trump’s more lax approach will reverse the coal industry’s decline. Coal has been steadily losing its foothold in the American energy marketplace to cheaper natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar.

Though the industry has blamed government regulations such as the Clean Power Plan for making it noncompetitive, domestic demand for coal has fallen even without the Obama-era rule ever taking effect.

Times staff writers Anna M. Phillips and Chris Megerian contributed to this report.