The Trump administration dealt former President Barack Obama’s signature climate policy a death blow on Wednesday, finalizing its proposal to replace sweeping curbs on power station emissions with a lax mandate to upgrade equipment at old plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, rule grants states leeway to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and requires coal-fired power plants to install only modest on-site retrofits to pare down planet-warming pollution.
At a press conference, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, until two years ago a coal lobbyist, made clear the new rule aimed to bolster the struggling coal industry. At one point, Wheeler even quoted the chief executive of oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. arguing that renewable energy is insufficient to deliver reliable electricity.
“We can’t deny the fact that fossil fuels will continue to be part of the energy mix at home and abroad,” Wheeler said. “The contrast between our approach and the Green New Deal and other plans like it couldn’t be clearer.”
The U.S. power sector is on track to cut carbon dioxide more than the 32% below 2005 levels the Clean Power Plan projected by 2030 as renewables, bolstered by state-level climate policies, continue growing at a steady pace. But environmentalists dubbed the ACE rule the “Dirty Power Plan,” decrying its narrowed scope and lack of ambition as suicidal backward steps in the midst of a rapidly worsening climate crisis.
“With this rule, EPA does virtually nothing to address its obligation to regulate carbon dioxide and confirms its support of the coal industry at the expense of our health and our children’s future,” Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator during Obama’s second term, said in a statement.
The proposal, which already faces impending lawsuits from the attorneys general of such as states as New York and Massachusetts, essentially completes President Donald Trump’s quashing of a rule Republicans blamed for strangling the coal industry, and ramps up his administration’s assault on federal regulations aimed at curbing emissions.
Speaking at the event on Wednesday morning, Republican congressmen from coal-producing states, including Reps. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), skewered the Clean Power Plan as a “coal killing” bid to illegally expand the federal government’s powers. The congressmen called its replacement a “commonsense approach” that promised real environmental progress. It was a curious claim from politicians who have long rejected the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, but hardly the most specious. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney at one point falsely claimed U.S. emissions were steady or declining, despite a sharp spike last year.
The rollback comes as the White House is making a haphazard attempt to unravel Obama-era fuel economy standards. It’s part of a broader deregulatory sweep in which the administration is trying to eliminate or delay at least 83 environmental regulations, particularly rules to reduce greenhouse gases.
The Trump administration’s push is occurring in tandem with mounting scientific projections that show catastrophic warming in the coming decades and natural disasters that illustrate what a hotter world looks like. Federal researchers in Hawaii recorded carbon dioxide concentrations of 415 parts per million last month, the highest level seen since humans evolved.
“It certainly seems like confirmation that this administration is determined to do nothing about climate change regulatorily,” Janet McCabe, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation under Obama, told HuffPost.
The ACE rule’s real threat, The New York Times reported, is in the EPA’s legal determination of the best system of emission reduction. If the Supreme Court upholds the ACE rule, it could permanently hamstring future presidents’ ability to regulate climate-changing emissions.
First proposed in 2015, the Clean Power Plan sought to hasten the country’s shift away from coal-fired electricity by setting the first national limits on carbon from power plants and creating a fund to match state grants for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. The policy took years to craft and considered millions of public comments, including from coal-fired utilities.
But the plan never took effect. In February 2016, the Supreme Court issued a stay, temporarily blocking the regulation. After Trump took office, he nominated Scott Pruitt, the Republican attorney general of Oklahoma who led the lawsuit to halt the Clean Power Plan, as his EPA administrator.
In October 2017, eight months after the Senate confirmed Pruitt, he formally proposed repealing the Clean Power Plan, arguing that it violated coal-producing states’ rights and cost too much.
But with the EPA’s Endangerment Finding, the agency legally recognized that carbon dioxide harms human health by warming the planet, thereby requiring federal regulations of some kind under the Clean Air Act. To eliminate the Clean Power Plan, the Trump administration needed to replace it. So, last August, Wheeler, the deputy administrator who took charge after Pruitt resigned amid mounting scandals, released a draft of the ACE rule and proceeded to host a series of public hearings across the country.
The rule announced Wednesday is the culmination of that process. It differs little from last August’s proposal. But the final version excludes a controversial proposal that dramatically eased air pollution requirements on power plant upgrades. The proposed changes to the New Source Review program gave states new ways to measure whether upgrades needed federal permitting. Those tweaks are now likely to be spun off in a separate rulemaking process, E&E News reported.
“ACE will continue our nation’s environmental progress and will do so legally and with proper respect of the states,” Wheeler said.
But some climate deniers with close ties to the Trump EPA want to see the administration go further. In a statement to Axios, Myron Ebell, the hardline denier who ran Trump’s EPA transition team, said his right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute will likely sue the EPA over the rule, arguing carbon dioxide should not be regulated under the Clean Air Act at all.
This has been updated throughout.