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Trump administration proposes rule to relax carbon limits on power plants

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 8/21/2018 Juliet Eilperin

A coal miner identified only as Kevin shakes hands with President Trump before Trump signed a resolution rejecting the Obama Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule, in the White House, Feb. 16, 2017. © Ron Sachs / Pool/EPA A coal miner identified only as Kevin shakes hands with President Trump before Trump signed a resolution rejecting the Obama Interior Department’s Stream Protection Rule, in the White House, Feb. 16, 2017.

The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed rewriting pollution standards for power plants across the country, a move that could keep aging coal-fired plants running longer and slow the decline of carbon emissions in the United States.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, which the president will tout at a roundtable in Charleston, W.Va., this evening, represents the administration’s most ambitious proposal yet to bolster the nation’s coal industry. It would replace an Obama-era rule that set strict carbon dioxide limits for each state and encouraged utility companies to shift to natural gas and renewable energy to slow the pace of global warming.

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“Today we are fulfilling the president’s agenda,” EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters in a phone call Tuesday. He added that the new proposal “respects the rule of law and will enable states to build clean, affordable, and reliable energy portfolios.”

One of the measure’s biggest impacts could be on public health, since it would allow coal-fired plants to run longer if they became more efficient, which could increase the total amount of soot and smog-forming pollutants they emit. The EPA projects that if finalized, the rule could lead to between 470 and 1,400 premature deaths each year compared to the Obama-era rule.

“There is nothing clean or affordable about this rule,” said Carter Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, an advocacy group, in a statement. “Coal plants emit more carbon pollution than all other sources. They’re often more expensive than natural gas, solar, or wind energy. And worst of all, they impose severe public health costs on us all.”

But Bill Wehrum, who heads EPA’s air and radiation office, told reporters Tuesday that the proposal would provide companies with an incentive to update their operations and that the agency has other policies that reduce traditional pollutants.

“What we’re dealing with here are greenhouse gases,” Wehrum said. “We have abundant legal authority to deal with those other pollutants directly, and we have aggressive programs in place that directly target emissions of those pollutants.”

The agency estimates that the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions would continue to decline in coming years, but almost entirely due to market pressures. By 2030, carbon dioxide levels would be between 0.7 percent and 1.5 percent lower than they would have without any regulation in place, according to an EPA analysis.

By contrast, the Obama administration projected that its rule would have cut emissions 19 percent compared to business-as-usual over the same time frame. However, the updated EPA analysis says that because emissions are dropping faster than previously expected, due to utilities’ ongoing shifts to natural gas and renewable power, the Obama rule would now translate to a roughly 4 percent reduction.

Environmentalists and several Democratic attorneys general said they would seek to challenge the proposed rule in court. They said they were confident that they would prevail because the rule would delegate too much authority to the states.

“This isn’t how the Clean Air Act is supposed to work,” said Earthjustice counsel Howard Fox, noting that the federal government traditionally sets specific pollution targets. “States have leeway about how to achieve the reduction, but not whether to achieve it.”

Industry officials praised the administration for the plan, which EPA estimates would save the power sector $400 million a year in compliance costs compared to the rule it would replace.

Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, said in an interview Monday that the rule change was “at the top” of the coal industry’s list of policy priorities, because utility executives had been shuttering coal plants at a rapid clip when faced with the prospect of curbing emissions of not just carbon dioxide, but mercury, soot and smog-forming pollutants.

“It means considerably less regulatory pressure on a valuable coal fleet that’s already endured considerable regulatory pressures,” Quinn said. For coal miners, he added, “it’s really invigorating to them to see that this president supports them so much.”

Roughly 40 percent of the nation’s coal fleet has either been retired or slated for retirement since 2010, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The Sierra Club places the number even higher, saying that 270 of the 523 coal plants it targeted in 2010 are either shut down or scheduled to close.

The Obama-era rule, dubbed the Clean Power Plan, has never taken effect because the Supreme Court stayed it after more than two dozen Republican attorneys general and industry groups said the EPA exceeded its legal authority. But cheaper natural gas and renewable energy, along with recent federal requirements to cut the sector’s emissions of mercury and other neurotoxins, have already encouraged many companies to close existing coal-fired plants.

Analysts said that if enacted, the administration’s plan would not reverse the overall trend in the power sector: The Energy Information Agency projects its carbon output to decline 28 percent by the end of the next decade. But they added that it would leave the power sector subject to the vagaries of the free market, and make it harder to enact steeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions over the next couple of decades.

“The world’s on fire, and the Trump administration wants to make it worse,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “It would mean more climate-changing pollution from power plants. That’s a recipe for climate disaster, and we’ll fight this dangerous retreat with every tool available.”

The measure would establish guidelines for how plants could make the process of converting coal to electricity more efficient using existing technology, and give states three years to devise standards based on a unit-by-unit analysis of their utilities’ operations. The EPA would then have a year to determine whether to approve the state plans, and another year to impose a federal plan if they determine a plan is insufficient.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, praised the administration for delegating more power to states such as his own.

“Washington must work with Wyoming, and other states, in this process,” he said in a statement, noting that coal production employed 5,682 workers in Wyoming in 2016. “The so-called ‘Clean Power Plan’ would have cost Wyoming’s energy workers their jobs and devastated communities throughout the state.”

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juliet.eilperin@washpost.com

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