EPA Rolls Back Obama-era Rules Meant to Rein In Power Plant Pollution

June 19, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday replaced Obama-era rules intended to tamp down on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants with new regulations that allow states to decide whether such steps are needed.

The new rule will go into effect after its publication in the Federal Register, barring court challenges.

As he signed the replacement rule, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, said “Americans want reliable energy they can afford.”

He also insisted that coal-fired power plants — and fossil fuels in general — will remain “an important part” of meeting the nation’s energy needs for some time to come.

President Donald Trump campaigned hard in 2016 on a pledge to bring back the coal industry, and his boosterism on behalf of the industry continues unabated.

Despite this, coal’s decline continues.

According to the Brookings Institution, the United States has seen a 40 percent decline in coal-fired power generation over the past decade, mostly due to plant retirements and lower utilization of those that remain.

That decline continues to accelerate, due to competition from natural gas and renewable energy, and industry analysts suggested Wednesday’s move by the EPA is unlikely to arrest that trend.

The reality is the rule being replaced, President Obama’s “Clean Power Plan,” never actually went into effect.

Adopted in 2015, the Clean Power Plan encouraged utilities to rely less on dirtier-burning coal-fired power plants and more on electricity from natural gas, solar, wind and other lower or no-carbon sources.

Burning of fossil fuels for electricity, transportation and heat is the main human source of heat-trapping carbon emissions.

But in February 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked the rule to allow what turned out to be years of court challenges to play out.

The new regulation replaces the Obama initiative, but doesn’t do away with all of its requirements.

That’s because in a much earlier ruling — dating back to 2007 – the Supreme Court said the EPA must regulate any pollutant determined to be a danger to human health and the environment.

Instead, the EPA rule gives states very little leeway in how they can encourage climate-friendly improvements at existing power plants.

States won’t be able to force power plant operators to switch from coal to clean sources of energy, nor would they be able to require the use of carbon capture technologies at plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Nevertheless, the EPA says the energy efficiency improvements the new rule does allow will result in a reduction of 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. (Not nothing, but still less than 1 percent of current U.S. emissions.)

In a written statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said “the Trump administration’s outrageous Dirty Power Scam is a stunning giveaway to big polluters, giving dirty special interests the greenlight to choke our skies, poison our waters and worsen the climate crisis.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., agreed, accusing the White House of continuing an “unrelenting assault on the nation’s clean air and water.

“The science behind climate change could not be more clear,” Hoyer said. “More frequent and extreme weather, longer and more intense wildfire seasons, rising sea levels, and melting permafrost affecting millions of Americans bear out these facts.  We need to take dramatic action to reduce carbon pollution in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, not provide a giveaway to polluters at the expense of public health and a worsening of the climate crisis.

“House Democrats are committed to doing our part to protect the environment and public health and combat the climate crisis,” Hoyer said. “That’s why we passed the Climate Action Now Act in May, affirming America’s commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and funding critical investments in clean energy.”

Hoyer called on the Trump administration to reverse course “and put agencies back to work ensuring clean air and clean water for all Americans and promoting more efficient and cleaner power sources for America’s future.”

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