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Politics

Trump moves to gut Obama climate policy and bolster the coal industry

Fishermen drift by the John E. Amos coal-fired power plant operating on the banks of the Kanawha Riv
A coal-fired power plant near Winfield, W.Va.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The Trump administration on Wednesday unveiled its final plan to rewrite a major Obama-era climate change policy, scrapping proposed regulations that would have cracked down on coal-burning power plants.

The administration’s plan would gut the so-called Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s signature domestic program to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Stalled by the courts, the plan was never enacted.

Under Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency has branded the rewrite as the Affordable Clean Energy rule and designed it to fulfill the president’s campaign promise to bring back the coal industry.

The new power plan does away with what had been aggressive nationwide goals for reducing the energy sector’s carbon footprint.

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It sets no targets, leaving that responsibility to individual states. And it assumes that gradual changes in the energy market will lead to the adoption of cleaner fuels, such that by 2030 carbon emissions from the electricity industry will have fallen 35% from 2005 levels.

Even if greenhouse gas emissions drop to that point, experts say it would not be nearly enough to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the widely agreed-upon threshold for catastrophic effects of climate change.

The EPA’s plan also is expected to result in additional soot and smog-forming emissions. The effects are likely to be the most serious in the Midwest, on the East Coast and in regions downwind from coal-burning power plants.

According to the agency’s own analysis, the new rule could lead to more cases of upper respiratory illness and cause an estimated 1,400 premature deaths each year by 2030.

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Speaking at a news conference held at the agency’s headquarters, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler criticized the Obama administration’s plan as government overreach.

“The American public elected a president with a better approach, and today we are fulfilling his directive,” Wheeler said. “The Affordable Clean Energy rule gives states the regulatory certainty they need to continue to reduce emissions and provide affordable and reliable energy for all Americans.”

The announcement drew praise from leaders of states that depend heavily on coal production for employment and electricity. Republican Sen. John Barrasso called it “good news for Wyoming.”

It was just as quickly condemned. Gina McCarthy, who led the EPA during the Obama administration, said in a statement that the new plan was evidence of the Trump EPA’s “callous disregard” for the agency’s mission.

“The Trump administration has made painfully clear that they are incapable of rising to the challenge and tackling this crisis,” she said.

Immediately following the agency’s announcement, New York’s attorney general issued a statement saying she intended to sue to block the administration’s new rule from taking effect. Massachusetts’ attorney general echoed those plans, calling the rule “unjustifiable and illegal.” More states, including California, are planning to join the legal challenge.

“California and a coalition of states will initiate a legal challenge against the Trump administration’s continued attempts to prop up the coal industry by ignoring sensible efforts to use cleaner, healthier and more efficient energy sources,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement Wednesday.

The new rule could face an uphill battle in court. The Clean Air Act obligates the federal government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and the Trump administration may have difficulty convincing the courts that its rule is the best way to do that.

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Whereas the Obama plan would have pushed utilities to shift their operations away from coal and toward cleaner-burning fuels, the Trump rule has been hailed by the coal industry as a move that would tilt the market back in its favor. Older coal-burning plants that would have been forced into retirement under the Clean Power Plan would now be allowed to stay open with modest modifications.

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 like the Clean Power Plan for making it noncompetitive, domestic demand for coal has fallen even without the Obama-era rule ever taking effect.

Environmentalists say if the new rule is ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court, it could tie the hands of future administrations seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the rule is based on the Trump EPA’s argument that it lacks the legal authority to regulate emissions from the power sector as a whole. Instead, the agency’s lawyers have said they can only set standards for individual power plants — a smokestack-by-smokestack approach that is a much narrower interpretation of the agency’s powers.

“This is nothing more than an unlawful extension for coal plants masquerading as a climate rule,” said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group that’s readying a lawsuit over the new rule.

Under the new rule, currently set to take effect in 30 days unless blocked by courts, states will have three years to write their own standards for power plant emissions. They will submit these plans to the EPA, which can then take another year to decide whether to approve them.

The rule would not bar states like California from pursuing more ambitious emissions goals. But it removes an incentive for other states to join those that already have.

Craig Segall, a lawyer for the California Air Resources Board, the state’s top air quality regulator, said that during the Obama administration Western states began discussing ways to modernize the power grid and expand California’s cap-and-trade program to states with heavy coal use. Segall said when Trump ordered the agency to repeal the Clean Power Plan, those talks ended.

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“We can keep doing the right things,” Segall said. “But the problem is that this rule is going to make it more difficult to get other folks to do the right things.”

Times staff writer Tony Barboza contributed to this report.

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