It’s official: the United States' Clean Power Plan is out. This week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the agency’s final replacement for the Obama-era rule, which aimed to reduce carbon emissions from the energy sector to combat climate change.
Trump may deny the existence of climate change, but he couldn’t outright repeal the rule without a replacement because the US courts have previously ruled that the EPA is legally obligated to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.
His EPA first proposed a replacement rule, the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE) in August, and now it’s a done deal. From what Wheeler and his colleagues discussed during the press conference, the final rule doesn’t seem much different from what the agency first proposed nearly a year ago.
Basically, it gives US states the ability to do whatever they want, even if that means doing nothing, to reduce emissions from power plants, in stark contrast to the clear targets the Clean Power Plan put forth. The only option the rule explicitly offers is “heat rate improvements,” which is another way of describing efficiency improvements at plants.
“These provisions will give states and the private sector the regulatory certainty they need to invest in new technologies that increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions,” said Wheeler during the announcement.
Except, well, not really. The best case scenario that can result from the ACE rule is that emissions would stay the same, said Ellen Kurlansky, a former air policy analyst and adviser with the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, who helped author the Clean Power Plan.
As she noted, an analysis from earlier this year showed that this rule could result in 11 million more tons of carbon dioxide emitted in the US by 2050 compared to no plan at all. That’s because the more efficient a plant is, the more likely it is to operate for prolonged hours. So any benefit from increased efficiency is likely to be lost by the increase in operating hours.
The Clean Power Plan laid out a specific target to reduce US emissions from the electricity sector: 32 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Reducing greenhouse gases also helps reduce pollutants—like particulate matter and sulphur dioxide—emitted from facilities, so this emission reduction would’ve prevented some 3600 premature deaths a year, by the EPA’s own analysis under former US President Barack Obama.
Wheeler made no mention of this point during the press conference, so it’s unclear how health benefits factored into the agency’s decision, if at all. He did say that the ACE rule would reduce emissions by 35 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 but did not offer details on how exactly it would do that.
What is clear, to Kurlansky at least, is that this plan is dangerous - and not just for the US, but the rest of the world, as well.
“We’ve come to a point where people are really starting to realise and struggling to deal with the growing effects of climate change,” she told Earther.
“I’m talking about hurricanes and floods and droughts and fires. Just as this is becoming clearer to people, we’ve got this rule, which pulls back on any requirement that the power industry reduce its emissions. We know that we’ve got to do better—not worse—than we were doing if we’re going to forestall some of the worst effects of climate change.”
Wheeler, of course, didn’t talk about the threat of climate change, which the former coal lobbyist has previously called “not the greatest crisis.”
Instead, he took this opportunity to shit all over the Green New Deal, which doesn’t yet exist but theoretically would provide a road map to transitioning off fossil fuels. He noted that the Trump administration isn’t here to tell Americans what to do—whether it’s the energy they use, their preferred method of travel, or the food they can eat.
The Green New Deal is doing neither.
“If we’re not talking about shutting [coal plants] down and looking for clean renewable energy options, we’re doing a disservice to the communities who are most impacted by the environmental harms from coal-fired power plants,” said Nakisa Glover, the founder of Sol Nation, a nonprofit dedicated to seeking solutions to the environmental crisis, to Earther.
And while the Trump-led EPA loves to pretend it cares about disenfranchised communities that are hit by the financial loss of coal, the EPA isn’t taking steps necessary to train them for a future where coal doesn’t exist. That’s key, said Glover. Because coal won’t be around forever: It’s been on a downwind spiral while renewables have been on the rise.
No amount of pro-coal policy can stop that transition. But it can cost lives in the meanwhile.