The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday killed President Obama’s signature climate change policy, the Clean Power Plan. It’s one of the few definitive wins in the Trump administration’s full-court press to undo and weaken environmental regulations.
With the release of a replacement plan before an audience that included coal miners wearing reflective shirts and hard hats, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler finalized the end of the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The plan required states to meet targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and aimed to reduce US power sector emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Wheeler said the CPP hurt US competitiveness and placed a financial burden on low- and middle-income Americans. And the CPP’s replacement, the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, is drastically weaker. The ACE rule would lower emissions between 0.7 percent and 1.5 percent by 2030. The EPA noted that long-term industry trends are expected to still push emissions down 35 percent, but that’s largely independent of the ACE rule.
It also cements an alarming reversal in US greenhouse gas emissions trends. US greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise after years of decline. White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said Wednesday that emissions are “flat or down,” but that is dead wrong.
According to some researchers, the new policy itself could actually increase greenhouse gas emissions, even compared to business as usual. And according to the EPA’s own assessments, the proposal will lead to thousands more deaths from air pollution.
However, environmental groups are gearing up to file legal challenges of their own.
The EPA is required to regulate greenhouse gases, but the law doesn’t say it has to be enthusiastic about it
As much as the Trump administration doesn’t want to do it, the EPA must regulate greenhouse gases. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Massachusetts v. EPA that the agency has to limit greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act if they’re a threat to public health. The EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding for carbon dioxide determined just that.
So the Trump administration couldn’t just repeal the CPP; it needed a plausible replacement. The ACE rule is just that.
“I believe this is the first rule in EPA’s history that acknowledges the existential threat of climate change but by the agency’s own admission does absolutely nothing to stop it,” said former Obama EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a statement.
The critical detail here is how the ACE rule intends to lower emissions compared to the CPP. The EPA is required to lay out a standard known as “best system of emission reduction.” Under the Obama administration, this included pricing carbon dioxide, switching to cleaner power generation fuels, or capturing carbon dioxide emissions.
The new ACE rule leans on one method: efficiency. The technical term is “heat rate improvement,” but what it means is that fossil fuel-burning power plants would be pushed to draw more energy from the same amount of fuel. This would lower the carbon intensity of the energy generated.
However, generating more energy from the same amount of fuel makes the fuel more cost-effective. That in turn could lead to a rebound effect where utilities end up burning more fuels like coal and natural gas. According to a study published in April in Environmental Research Letters, the ACE rule would lead to 28 percent of the power plants modeled in the study to emit more carbon dioxide by 2030 compared to a scenario with no policy at all.
This rebound effect can also lead to an increase of other air pollutants like particulates, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides. In the EPA’s own regulatory impact assessment for the ACE rule published last year, the agency noted that these extra pollutants could cause between 460 and 1,400 additional deaths per year by 2030, in addition to exacerbating other ailments like asthma.
The Affordable Clean Energy rule obviates one legal headache for the EPA, but is creating another one
Trump’s EPA has argued that the Obama plan exceeded the agency’s authority and that the new proposal fits within the confines of the law. When the CPP was announced, 27 states sued to block it. Then, in an unusual move, the Supreme Court in 2016 ruled 5-4 to stay the Clean Power Plan to allow state lawsuits to proceed, preventing it from ever going into effect.
With the Affordable Clean Energy rule finalized, those lawsuits are now moot.
The latest repeal is at the intersection of two Trump Administration priorities outlined in executive orders: to roll back regulations and to promote US energy development, particularly fossil fuels. And unlike other environmental rollbacks at the EPA that have been delayed, bogged down in bureaucratic muck, or stalled by lawsuits, the ACE rule, now that it has been finalized, might stick.
But New York Attorney General Letitia James has already announced her intent to sue the Trump administration over the ACE rule and expects other states to join the litigation. That means another wave of court cases could stall the EPA’s new rule.