Updated 2:35 p.m. | Democrats are already promising a Congressional Review Act challenge to the Trump administration’s proposal Tuesday to replace an Obama-era regulation curbing climate-warming carbon emissions from the electric power sector.
For President Donald Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans, the draft proposal marks the culmination of a three-year battle to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a rulemaking finalized in 2015 that required states to devise plans to cut carbon emissions from existing coal-powered electricity plants and other high carbon-emitting energy sources.
Republicans lawmakers cheered the proposal’s cost savings and shifting of authority to states, and Democrats complained that the new plan would be an inadequate response to climate change and might lead to as many as 1,400 premature deaths.
Democrats pledged to use the CRA, which allows for an expedited, filibuster-proof Senate vote if backers can round up at least 30 signatures, to try to kill the plan should one or both chambers flip to Democratic control after the midterm elections. Trump would ultimately have veto power over such a resolution.
“I intend along with others using the legislative tools available to us in the Senate including the Congressional Review Act to undo this harmful plan,” Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachussetts said at a news conference Tuesday in response to the EPA’s proposal.
“The so-called ‘Clean Power Plan’ would have cost Wyoming’s energy workers their jobs and devastated communities throughout the state,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso said in a statement. “The Obama-era regulation wasn’t just bad policy, it was illegal. I am glad the Trump administration is focused on getting this punishing rule off the books.”
According to an EPA fact sheet, the new rulemaking — which the agency dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy or “ACE” rule — would direct states to draw up their own emission reduction plans based on EPA guidance when it comes to coal plants, leaving an opening for states to determine how plants in their jurisdiction will meet the EPA's guidance.
The new strategy would also influence states to move toward more efficient coal plants, via “heat rate improvement measures,” to bolster the amount of power produced per unit of coal as the best way to lower emissions from existing plants.
“The ACE Rule would restore the rule of law and empower states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide modern, reliable, and affordable energy for all Americans,” EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “Today’s proposal provides the states and regulated community the certainty they need to continue environmental progress while fulfilling President Trump’s goal of energy dominance.”
The strategy appears to be an attempt to keep coal plants humming for a bit longer in the face of competition from cheaper renewables and natural gas power options, although market forces increasingly favor those technologies — something unlikely to change by the new proposal.
Climate, health impacts
According to the EPA’s accounting, the new strategy would result in an additional 61 million short tons of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants compared to the Clean Power Plan by 2030 — equal to adding approximately 13 million cars’ greenhouse gas output in a year, according to the EPA’s carbon dioxide equivalencies calculator.
Those emissions include an additional 53,000 short tons of sulfur dioxide and 39,000 thousand short tons of nitrous oxide by 2030 compared to the Clean Power Plan. Those particles are known to have adverse health effects like increased lung and cardiovascular disease.
Those increased emissions, especially from microscopic, atmospheric particulate matter that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, could lead to additional health problems compared to the Clean Power Plan. The EPA estimated the additional particulate matter caused by the plan could result in an additional 470 to 1,400 premature deaths by 2030. Those numbers also include the potential for 35,000 to 48,000 lost work days by 2030.
“If that isn’t enough reason to say ‘no thanks,’ I don’t know what else is,” said Delaware Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Trump made the regulation’s removal a central tenet of his campaign’s energy platform, aligning himself with a GOP Congress that tried to nullify the regulation over the past few Congresses through appropriation policy riders and the CRA, only to fall short at the hands of a President Barack Obama veto. Republicans argued the plan would impose high electric costs for limited environmental benefits.
The EPA says its new strategy could result in $3.4 billion in net benefits compared to the Clean Power Plan over 10 years starting in 2025, including compliance savings for electricity generators. Opponents say the EPA failed to incorporate public health costs and eventual climate change mitigation costs as part of that analysis, which economic experts put in the billions of dollars absent meaningful climate action.
Democrats were critical of the rule's ability to help old coal plants stay in business by weakening new source review, an environmental analysis triggered by proposed changes at coal plants that operators say is a costly hurdle to upgrading plants with modern, more efficient coal technology.
Under the new proposal, the review would be triggered by “only projects that increase a plant’s hourly rate of pollutant emissions,” according to a fact sheet. Currently, the review is triggered by any “major modification” to a coal plant.
“The Trump Dirty Power Scam will not lower electric bills, create jobs, or revive the coal industry, but will instead stifle innovation in clean energy, harm human health, and push the planet toward further dangerous warming,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. “This is a dangerous proposal, and I will do everything I can to fight it.”
Going to court
Environmental groups immediately panned the new approach, calling it “riddled with gimmicks and giveaways” and vowing to oppose any changes to the Clean Power Plan in the federal courts.
“The world’s on fire and the Trump administration wants to make it worse,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “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 Clean Power Plan required states to come up with plans to start cutting emissions by 2022, with a target of reducing carbon output by 32 percent below 2005 levels. The regulation never went into effect after 27 states and industry advocates filed a lawsuit, resulting in a stay by the Supreme Court.
The regulation had been at the center of the Obama administration’s Paris climate agreement pledges. Trump announced in June 2017 that he would pull the United States out of the global accord to address climate change in an effort to negotiate a better deal for the country.
No official international negotiations have taken place since that announcement, and European countries have largely ignored his calls to return to the negotiation table.
Trump and his administration have repeatedly downplayed the threat of climate change and mankind's contribution to the process. The vast majority of scientists say consumer and industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are driving rising sea levels and increased intensity of extreme weather events like drought, hurricanes and wildfires. Trump instead has previously called climate a change “a hoax” perpetrated by China and other manufacturing competitors to undercut U.S. competitiveness.