The Trump administration is poised Tuesday to unveil a sweeping rewrite of emissions rules for power plants that would be a boon to the coal industry, laying the groundwork for a revival of the most polluting facilities and abandoning Obama-era mandates for reorienting the electricity sector toward clean energy.
The draft replacement for the federal Clean Power Plan, according to several people who have been briefed on it, reflects a dramatic about-face on national climate action. It is President Trump’s second major move in less than a month reflecting a retreat in the fight against global warming, following the administration’s plan to freeze fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks.
The new power plan would relieve the electricity industry — the second-largest producer of potent greenhouse gases nationwide — from aggressive goals for reducing its carbon footprint. Heavily polluting coal plants that would have been forced into retirement under the Obama-era guidelines get a new lease on life under the Trump blueprint, which allows them to continue operating with modest modification.
In some cases, states may be permitted to ignore federal guidelines for certain plants altogether and pursue their own strategy. Trump is expected to tout the plan at an event Tuesday in the coal stronghold of West Virginia.
Climate-conscious states like California are already mobilizing to fight, arguing the administration’s approach violates the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the law requires the federal government to take steps to combat air pollutants that are warming the global climate.
Administration talking points leaked to the media say the replacement of the Clean Power Plan is a signal “to the nation that the war on coal is over and a new era of energy dominance is underway.” A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees emission regulations, declined to comment on the draft plan.
The administration already made clear last year that it planned to scrap the ambitious Obama-era goals, which were crucial to meeting the commitments Obama made to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of the Paris accord on climate change.
Emissions in the power sector would still decline under the new plan, largely because dropping prices for natural gas and, to a lesser extent, solar and wind are pushing utilities away from coal. But the pace of the transition could slow substantially if the Trump plan is enacted, undermining the race by California and other states to carry the nation toward meeting the Paris obligations. In some cases, the new plan encourages the continued operation of old coal plants that might otherwise retire without any government intervention.
“They are following the industry’s playbook, step by step,” said Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA under Obama. “This is all about coal at all costs.”
The proposal is part of a broader push by the Trump administration to use its regulatory powers to prop up a coal industry that is struggling for survival. It comes as the Energy Department is mulling a directive to power grid operators to add more coal energy to their mix, arguing the continued operation of the plants is a matter of national defense. Independent energy analysts find the argument dubious, warning such a mandate would drive up energy costs and do nothing to improve national security.
The Clean Power Plan replacement comes after 27 states challenged the original Obama administration rule, arguing that it overstepped the federal government’s authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. The act requires the EPA to set its targets for greenhouse gas reduction by assessing “the best systems for emissions reduction” available.
The Obama administration applied the rule in the context of broader electricity networks, pushing regulations that prod states to more swiftly replace coal plants with cleaner burning energy. The states opposed went to court, arguing the federal government’s role is merely to ensure coal plants are equipped with limited emissions control technology. In early 2016, the Supreme Court blocked enforcement of the Obama-era plan in a 5-4 ruling that gave states opposed to it an opportunity to make their case.
“The previous administration’s effort to address greenhouse gases was a complex and unnecessarily burdensome overreach that took much of the responsibility for power systems away from state regulators who know them best,” said an email from Scott Segal, a lobbyist for energy companies. “The replacement rule is premised on the fact that states are in a better position to judge the inventory of measures available to reduce carbon emissions within their power sectors.”
Some of those states, though, have already signaled that they intend to do as little as the courts will allow. Among the states that fought the Obama rule most aggressively was Oklahoma, where the person spearheading the court effort was then-state Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, who went on to lead the EPA for Trump until he resigned under the cloud of multiple federal ethics investigations this year.
The Supreme Court order staying implementation of the Obama plan has remained in place at the request of the Trump administration, to provide time to rewrite the rules.
The effects of the new proposal extend beyond global warming. It allows plants to emit considerably more smog and soot-forming pollutants. The Clean Power Plan would have curbed those pollutants enough to stave off thousands of deaths, and tens of thousands of asthma attacks and missed school and work days, according to EPA estimates.
“It’s worrisome,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group. “You would see an increase in the emissions that ultimately become deadly particulate matter.”
The plan Trump is poised to unveil also would unravel rules requiring power plants to install technologies to cut down on their greenhouse gas and smog-forming emissions when they are upgraded or expanded.
The proposal could prove tough to defend in court, where liberal states and environmental advocacy groups have a strong case to argue that it falls short of meeting the federal government’s legal requirement to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector. And even if the Trump administration prevails, industry analysts are skeptical its plan will reverse the fortunes of the coal industry.
“The coal fleet and coal generation are going down no matter what you do,” said John Larsen, a director at Rhodium Group, which tracks progress on climate action. “These coal plants are getting old. It costs a lot to keep them running, and they are not competitive in the market.”
Rhodium projects that even if the Clean Power Plan were repealed outright, and nothing were put in its place, the declining fortunes of coal still leave greenhouse gas emissions from power plants on track to fall a third or more from what they were in 2005 by 2030. The problem, Larsen said, is that the U.S. needs to move even more aggressively to meet its obligations in the Paris agreement. Even the Clean Power Plan, he said, did not go far enough.
It is all compounded by other moves Trump is making to curb climate action. Among them is the EPA’s proposed rewrite of Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards for cars and trucks. The administration’s push to abandon aggressive mile-per-gallon goals for new models of cars, pickups and SUVs through 2026 would eclipse the Clean Power Plan rollback in its impact on climate.
Joseph Goffman, an environmental law scholar at Harvard University who helped write the Clean Power Plan while an attorney at the EPA, called the Trump administration’s replacement plan “an anti-climate, pro-coal policy that is part of the mosaic of policies the administration is pushing to promote fossil fuels.”