President Donald Trump’s administration on Tuesday announced a plan to weaken regulations on US coal plants, giving a boost to an industry that former leader Barack Obama had hoped to wind down in order to cut harmful emissions that drive global warming.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s new Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule would allow states the flexibility to set their own standards for performance at existing coal-fired power plants, rather than follow a single federal standard.
The EPA says it is designed to replace Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan which called for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and a shift toward solar, wind, and less polluting natural gas.
The move marks the latest effort by Trump’s administration to roll back the environmental legacy of his Democratic predecessor, having pulled out of the 2015 Paris climate accord aimed at slashing global fossil fuel emissions.
Obama’s energy plan aimed to usher in the strictest anti-pollution measures in history on power plants but was put on hold in 2016 by the US Supreme Court.
Trump, whose ascent to the presidency effectively killed off the plan, had blasted it “intrusive” and claimed it would “kill jobs.”
The president is due to trumpet the new plan as he rallies supporters Tuesday night in the coal-producing state of West Virginia.
“The era of top-down, one-size-fits-all federal mandates is over,” said EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, in a phone call with reporters.
The new plan could take months or even years to take effect. Legal challenges are already lining up, as the proposal awaits a 60-day comment period before it can be finalized.
Environmental advocates blasted the proposal, saying it will boost emissions from power plants, which emit about 28 per cent of US greenhouse gases and worsen global warming.
“The plan calls for only modest efficiency improvements at individual power plants, which will barely make a dent in cutting heat-trapping emissions from the electricity sector, and could even, under some circumstances, lead to increased emissions depending on how much the plants are run,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“This proposal would also result in more pollution from nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and other harmful pollutants.”
Coal in decline
The White House said in a statement that if finalized, the rule “will significantly decrease bureaucratic red tape and compliance costs, keeping American energy affordable and competitive on the world stage.”
The White House claimed it would also save $6.4 billion in compliance costs for industry, compared to the Obama plan.
“We’re the only country in the world doing this, looking at coal as the future instead of understanding the future is about clean air, the future is about clean energy,” Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator under Obama, said on CNN.
Despite Trump’s support for coal plants, they continue to shut down. Some 40 per cent of coal plants in operation in 2010 are now closed or slated for closure, according to estimates from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
According to Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “EPA is now proposing a plan that will essentially be ignored by most of the industry.”
Bill Wehrum, administrator for EPA’s office of Air and Radiation, acknowledged that the industry “continues to transform in front of our eyes,” he told reporters.
“What we see is an ongoing significant shift in the direction of natural gas and renewable energy generation.”
Wehrum said that because of the shifting energy landscape, he expected emissions to fall at a rate “roughly comparable” to the goals outlined under the Obama-era plan, which called for a 26 per cent cut in greenhouse gases from power plants by 2025, compared to 2005 levels.