Coal plants will be able to release more pollution into the air thanks to a new policy revealed Tuesday by the Trump administration, a highly anticipated replacement to Obama’s signature climate rule.
Called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal largely defers to states on how to curb coal plant pollution, the second-largest source of climate emissions in the US.
The plan covers only coal plants, not natural gas or oil ones, and emphasizes making such plants more efficient. It also redefines EPA’s authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act in a narrower way and overhauls a permit process for big facilities.
“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,” EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.
The US is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, and has contributed the largest amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
This announcement comes just two weeks after government officials proposed freezing car mileage standards, which will also increase climate and other air pollution. Automobiles and other forms of transportation narrowly overtook power plants as the nation’s largest climate emitters in 2016.
These back-to-back changes rank among the Trump administration’s top efforts to undercut US responses to climate change, alongside threatening to quit the Paris climate agreement and axing a sweeping Obama-era executive order that required all agencies to reduce their climate footprint.
The Clean Power Plan, the 2015 rule that President Trump seeks to replace, aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 32% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. It offered states a menu of options by which to reach that goal, in many cases encouraging states to quickly transition away from coal power plants for electricity to less dirty energy sources, such as natural gas, solar, and wind.
Though the 2015 plan had yet to go into effect — states had a 2020 deadline to comply — the US has nearly reached that goal, having cut power plant emissions nearly 28% in 2017 compared to 2005 levels.
“The ACE rule would continue our CO2 decline into the future,” EPA’s Wheeler said at a press briefing about the rule. According to an EPA fact sheet, it would reduce carbon dioxide 2030 emissions equivalent to taking up to 5 million cars off the road each year.
But that’s far short of the original rule, which would have cut carbon emissions equivalent to taking 150 million cars off the road each year.
That’s partly why health and environment advocates are concerned a weaker replacement could result in stalled progress, and possibly a backslide to smoggier air and a warmer climate.
“Without a serious nationwide policy in place to encourage continued emissions reduction, there’s no guarantee we will lock in that progress,” Tomás Carbonell, director of regulatory policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, told BuzzFeed News.
The smaller expected climate gains are partly due to the rule’s more limited scope. An estimated 600 coal units at 300 plants would be impacted by the new rule, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In contrast, the original rule that covered 3,000 units at about 1,000 plants.
Another big contributing factor is how the rule defines more narrowly how the EPA can regulate emissions, offering states more specific ways to improve individual plant efficiency. It also lays out a more lenient schedule for states, giving them three years to develop a strategy.
“The Clean Power Plan was federal heavy, and left states very little latitude,” EPA air chief Bill Wehrum said at a press briefing about the new rule. “We believe that’s not the correct way to implement this part of the law.”
The original Clean Power Plan was also expected to prevent 3,500 premature deaths a year, as well as avoid an estimated 140,000 asthma attacks in children and 2,700 hospital visits. One study calculated the rule’s health and climate benefits to be $33 billion annually.
The EPA acknowledges that carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide emissions are expected to increase under the new rule compared to the original one. The new rule is also expected to increase coal production for power sector use by between 4.5% to 5.8% by 2025, to decrease retail electricity prices by less than 1%, and to result in no change in total electric generating capacity.
Soon after the Clean Power Plan was finalized in 2015, it was met with multiple lawsuits from states and members of the power industry. The Supreme Court then voted to put the rule on hold as the legal fights played out. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has yet to rule on the case and has repeatedly delayed a decision in response to requests from Trump officials.
Trump ordered the EPA to review the Clean Power Plan in an executive order last March, and the agency announced its controversial decision to repeal the rule months later. Now the replacement rule must go through a public comment period before it is finalized.
Some conservative and electric utility trade groups immediately praised the rule. Global Energy Institute CEO Karen Harbert called it an “important step,” and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson described it as “a more achievable plan.”
Meanwhile, environmental and health groups, as well as former Obama-era officials, have criticized the rule. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood already said she would challenge it in court if the proposal took effect, along with a coalition of more than a dozen states, counties, and cities.
Dan Vergano contributed reporting to this story.