EPA Proposal To Gut Obama-Era Coal Plant Rule Could Cause 1,400 Premature Deaths Per Year

The long-stalled Clean Power Plan never took effect, but the rule to replace it could cripple future efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The Trump administration proposed its plan Tuesday to gut a controversial Obama-era rule to cut carbon pollution from power plants, dealing a death blow to an ambitious regulation designed to be the backbone of the United States’ strategy to stave off climate catastrophe.

The new regulation, which Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed Monday, is called the Affordable Clean Energy rule. It gives states leeway to set their own, drastically lower greenhouse gas emissions targets and restrict what states can do to force coal plants to improve efficiency.

The rule marks one of the most significant rollbacks yet to Barack Obama’s climate legacy, and ― despite the Trump administration’s oft-repeated calls for “regulatory certainty” ― is expected to ignite a yearslong legal battle.

The increased carbon dioxide released under the new rule could lead to up to 1,400 premature deaths each year by 2030, according to the EPA’s own analysis. When asked about the deaths during a 10 a.m. call with reporters, Bill Wehrum, the assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, sputtered through his answer, repeatedly noting that the agency had the “abundant authority” to make the changes it proposed.

“Frankly, it’s quite minimal compared to the overall emissions that we’re dealing with here,” he said. “We think it’s enormously important in the first instance to stay within the law and implement the law as Congress requires us to do.”

Wehrum called the Clean Power Plan “ephemeral, and a misapplication of the Clean Air Act.”

The call marked a departure in style from the kind of flashy press conference that became a hallmark of former Administrator Scott Pruitt.

“Today we are fulfilling the president’s agenda,” Wheeler said in opening remarks. He left the call before taking any questions from reporters.

“We’re ending intrusive EPA regulations that kill jobs ... and raise the price of energy so quickly and so substantially,” President Donald Trump said in a statement Tuesday morning. In a tweet, he touted “clean coal” as he announced a rally in West Virginia on behalf of the Republican running to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the rule after the EPA submits it Tuesday morning to the Federal Register.

Exhaust spews from the East Bend Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Union, Kentucky.
Exhaust spews from the East Bend Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Union, Kentucky.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

The proposal outlines plans to cut CO2 emissions below 2005 levels by between 0.7 percent and 1.5 percent by 2030, roughly equivalent to taking between 2.5 million and 5.3 cars off the road, according to a Washington Post analysis published before the EPA’s announcement. The EPA’s own estimate pegged that number at 5 million cars. The plan would reduce the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that help form smog by between 1 percent and 2 percent over the same period.

That stands in stark contrast to the 2015 rule it seeks to replace. The Clean Power Plan, as it’s known, aimed to slash carbon pollution from the power sector to bring it 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, equal to taking 75 million cars off the road. The policy projected cuts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides pollution by 24 to 22 percent by the end of the decade.

In its 236-page notice to the Federal Register, the EPA questioned the continued rise of renewable energy, suggesting the trend “is not certain” because the industry uses subsidies. But solar and wind energy receives a fraction of the federal subsidies allotted to coal, oil and natural gas each year, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The EPA made no mention of the more than $20 billion the U.S. pays each year on fossil fuel subsidies or the roughly $34 billion the Trump administration proposed to prop up struggling coal and nuclear plants.

By comparison, the Clean Power Plan set the first national limits on carbon dioxide emissions from utilities and created a fund to match state grants for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in low-income communities. The policy took years to craft as the administration considered millions of public comments, including from industries affected by the rule’s restrictions.

The Obama administration calculated that the climate and health benefits of the Clean Power Plan ― including 90,000 fewer asthma attacks and 3,600 fewer premature deaths per year ― would total $34 billion to $54 billion. Subtracting the cost of complying with the new rules, the net benefits ranged from $26 billion to $45 billion.

But the rule never went into effect. In February 2016, the Supreme Court issued a stay, temporarily blocking the regulation. After Trump won the presidency later that year, he nominated Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who spearheaded the lawsuit to halt the Clean Power Plan, as Environmental Protection Agency administrator. In October 2017, eight months after the Senate confirmed Pruitt, he formally proposed repealing the policy, arguing that it violated the rights of coal-producing states and cost too much.

“The Obama-era regulation wasn’t just bad policy, it was illegal,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “I am glad the Trump administration is focused on getting this punishing rule off the books.”

At the heart of the debate over the policy’s financial value is a metric called the social cost of carbon, a calculation of the damages to property, human health, economic growth and agriculture as a result of climate change. Under Obama, the EPA estimated the social cost of carbon to be between $11 and $105 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution. But the real cost could much higher, according to a study Purdue University published last year, which found that existing models relied on decades-old agricultural data.

Yet Pruitt, who, like Trump, rejected the science behind anthropogenic global warming, said rescinding the Clean Power Plan would save the U.S. $33 billion in “avoided costs” by 2030. To reach that number, the Trump administration narrowed the scope of the calculation to include only domestic costs of carbon and tripled the discount rate for how the cost would decrease in the future ― accounting tweaks that amounted to “cooking the books,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But the EPA couldn’t just scrap the policy outright. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, under the Clean Air Act. On the back of that historic decision, the EPA issued in 2009 what’s known as the “endangerment finding,” which establishes carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act because it causes the planet to warm, a phenomenon with grave health implications. That formed the legal justification for the Clean Power Plan ― which also served as the chief policy for achieving the United States’ emissions reduction goals pledged under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, at a Senate hearing in August.
Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, at a Senate hearing in August.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Trump announced plans in June 2017 to withdraw from the Paris agreement. But overturning the endangerment finding would require the administration to disprove the science of climate change in court, a challenge from which the White House has shied away. As a result, the administration needed to offer a replacement.

“This proposal guts a solid and sensible plan this country put forth to fight the pollution driving climate change, and replaces it with a fossil fuel handout,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the Senate’s leading self-styled climate hawk, said in a statement. “The funding of the Republican Party by the fossil fuel industry has just reaped a rich reward.”

The Affordable Clean Energy rule mentions “climate change” three times, including one reference to coal plants as “the most carbon dioxide (CO2) intensive portion of the electricity generating fleet.”

Last November, the EPA held what was originally planned as its only public hearing on the proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan in Charleston, West Virginia. Yet even in the heart of coal country, public support for the policy was overwhelming.

At one point during the hearing, Stanley Sturgill, a septuagenarian Kentucky coal miner suffering from black lung, took the microphone and pleaded with the EPA to reverse course on the repeal.

“We’re still dying ― we’re still literally dying ― for you to help us,” he said. “Just how many people must pay the supreme price of death for a few rich, greedy people to bank a few dollars?”

But the loudest voice in the room proved to be Bob Murray, the chief executive of coal giant Murray Energy Corp. and a major Trump donor who in March 2017 delivered an action plan of demands, including the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, to the Trump administration. The EPA later scheduled three more public hearings, including one in Wyoming, the top coal-producing state. Yet the demise of the Clean Power Plan proved to be a foregone conclusion.

In April, the Senate confirmed Wheeler, who served as Murray’s top lobbyist in Washington until the middle of last year, as the EPA’s deputy administrator. That put him next in line to take over the agency when Pruitt, who by then had become embroiled in high-profile personal scandals, stepped down.

“Just how many people must pay the supreme price of death for a few rich, greedy people to bank a few dollars?”

- Stanley Sturgill, retired coal miner

In July, days after Pruitt resigned in disgrace amid mounting federal investigations and Wheeler took over, the EPA submitted its proposal to replace the Clean Power Plan to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The proposal ranks among the Trump administration’s flashiest attempts to show fealty to coal, an increasingly powerful partisan symbol despite the industry’s steady decline. The Department of Energy laid out plans to use a Cold War-era national security law to prop up failing coal and nuclear plants, arguing that relying on renewables and natural gas leaves the power grid vulnerable in a disaster. The plan could cost more than $34 billion and raise utility rates by as much as $65 billion, or about $500 more per year for the average ratepayer, according to testimony from at least one member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“You remember Hillary with the coal, right, sitting with the miners at the table? Remember? That wasn’t so good for her,” Trump said in a speech at a fundraiser in Utica, New York, earlier this month. “So the people of West Virginia and all over, you look at Wyoming, you look at so many different places where they just, Pennsylvania, where they loved what we did.”

Without mentioning the plan, often described as a “bailout,” Trump made the case for coal’s national security benefits while attacking renewable subsidies.

“Coal is indestructible,” Trump said. “You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills.”

In a blog post published before the EPA unveiled the replacement, David Doniger, senior director of the NRDC’s climate and clean energy program, called the policy a “do-nothing replacement” proposed “as the nation and the world suffer another summer of record heat waves, devastating wildfires, and alarming weather extremes.”

Carrying forward the ‘Dirty Power Plan’ designed under former Administrator Scott Pruitt, we expect Wheeler’s proposal will be designed to ensure that power plants are required to make no meaningful carbon pollution reductions ― and it may even make emissions increase,” he wrote.

Even as the Trump administration’s environmental deregulatory agenda suffers repeated legal setbacks, the White House appears focused on shoring up its gains. The Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, an ultraconservative with a long history of ruling in favor of corporate interests, could jeopardize not only the 2007 ruling that helped establish CO2 as a pollutant but also a legal precedent known as the Chevron doctrine, which compels courts to grant agencies leeway when interpreting the legal mandate used to craft regulations. That could hinder a future EPA administration’s efforts to re-establish the Clean Power Plan or a rule like it.

As it is, the rule proposed Tuesday appears aimed at trying to “force the country to rely on” Congress to pass substantive laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Stan Meiburg, a former acting deputy EPA administrator who spent 39 years at the agency.

“The administration is trying to create as many roadblocks for future efforts as they possibly can,” he said in an email. “It would sure help if our national leadership were willing to mobilize public support behind a problem that we can already see affecting our world, and that science says is only going to get worse!”

The Affordable Clean Energy rule comes as the EPA is working to gut the only other major federal rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In April, Pruitt announced plans to reverse an Obama-era fuel economy rule that would have doubled vehicle mileage and prevented 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere by 2030 ― equivalent to the entire annual emissions of Canada. On Aug. 2, the White House proposed its replacement, a policy that would gut the existing rule and take the unprecedented step of rescinding the special waiver that allows California to set its own, stricter auto emissions standards. In the legal justification for its proposal, the administration once again argued against the already-conservative estimate for the social cost of carbon.

This story was updated to reflect the EPA’s press call.

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