US: Trump EPA rolls back Obama rule on coal-fired power plants

Environmentalists say the rule is likely to lead to increases, not cuts, in carbon emissions over the next few decades.

    Steam rises from the coal-fired Jim Bridger power plant outside Rock Springs, Wyoming in 2017 [File: Jim Urquhart/Reuters]
    Steam rises from the coal-fired Jim Bridger power plant outside Rock Springs, Wyoming in 2017 [File: Jim Urquhart/Reuters]

    The Trump administration on Wednesday completed one of its biggest rollbacks of environmental rules, replacing a landmark Obama-era effort that sought to wean the United States's electrical grid off coal-fired power plants and their climate-damaging pollution.

    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, signed a replacement rule that gives states leeway in deciding whether to require efficiency upgrades at existing coal plants.

    Wheeler said coal-fired power plants remained essential to the power grid, something that opponents deny.

    "Americans want reliable energy that they can afford," he said at a news conference. There's no denying "the fact that fossil fuels will continue to be an important part of the mix", he said.

    President Donald Trump campaigned partly on a pledge to bring back the coal industry, which has been hit hard by competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.

    The Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule will go into effect shortly after publication in the Federal Register.

    'Outrageous Dirty Power scam'

    But environmental groups, who referred to Trump's rule as "the dirty power plan", have vowed to challenge the rule in the courts.

    "The dirty power plan rolls back the Clean Power Plan and threatens lives of people in this country and it threatens to cost our economy billions of dollars and it jeapordises our climate leadership," Mary Ann Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said in a video posted on Twitter. 

    US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a top Democrat, said in a statement that "the Trump administration's outrageous Dirty Power Scam is a stunning giveaway to big polluters, giving dirty special interests the green light to choke our skies, poison our waters and worsen the climate crisis." 

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    Joseph Goffman, an EPA official under President Barack Obama, said he feared that the Trump administration was trying to set a legal precedent that the Clean Air Act gives the federal government "next to no authority to do anything" about climate-changing emissions from the country's power grid.

    The Obama rule, adopted in 2015, sought to reshape the country's power system by encouraging 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.

    Supporters of the revised rule say the Obama-era plan overstepped the EPA's authority.

    "This action is recalibrating EPA so it aligns with being the agency to protect public health and the environment in a way that respects the limits of the law," said Mandy Gunasekara, a former senior official at the EPA who helped write the replacement rule. She now runs a nonprofit, Energy45, that supports President Donald Trump's energy initiatives.

    "The Clean Power Plan was designed largely to put coal out of business," Gunasekara said. Trump's overhaul is meant to let states "figure out what is best for their mission in terms of meeting modern environmental standards" and providing affordable energy, she said.

    Democrats and environmentalists say the Trump administration has ignored scientific warnings about climate change as it sought to protect the sagging US coal industry.

    "The growing climate crisis is the existential threat of our time and President Trump's shameful response was to put lobbyists and polluters in charge of protecting your health and safety," Pelosi said.

    Campaign promise

    With coal miners at his side, Trump signed an order in March 2017 directing the EPA to scrap the Obama rule. It was one of the first acts of his presidency.

    His pledge to roll back regulation for the coal industry helped cement support from owners and workers in the coal industry, and others. Despite his promise, market forces have frustrated Trump's efforts. Competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable fuel has continued a yearslong trend driving US coal plant closings to near-record levels last year, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

    Joe Goffman, executive director of the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard and former EPA General Counsel who worked on the Clean Power Plan, also said the new regulation could allow some coal-fired power plants to avoid retirement by making "hardware fixes and operational changes".

    But a Reuters survey last October of 44 utilities that have announced plans to shutter coal units in coming years showed none of them expected the new EPA proposal would affect the timing of those retirements.

    Stagnate progress?

    Since coming to office, Trump has taken a number of steps that environmentalists have described as an "attack" on the fight against climate change. 

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    He has moved to withdraw the US from the 2016 Paris Agreement, the international accord that aims to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature rise this century to below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

    An Associated Press analysis on Tuesday of federal air data showed US progress on cleaning the air may be stagnating after decades of improvement. There were 15 percent more days with unhealthy air in the US both last year and the year before than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when the US had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980.

    Without providing evidence, Trump has repeatedly claimed just the opposite, saying earlier this month in Ireland, "we have the cleanest air in the world, in the United States, and it's gotten better since I'm president".

    Along with an initiative requiring tougher mileage standards for cars and light trucks, the Clean Power Plan was one of Obama's two legacy efforts to slow climate change. The Trump administration is also proposing to roll back the Obama-era mileage standards, with a final rule expected shortly.

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    Protesters attend a demonstration with a theme "Protect the climate - stop coal" two days before the start of the COP 23 UN Climate Change Conference in 2017 [File: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]

    Trump has also rejected scientific warnings on climate change, including a report this year from scientists at more than a dozen federal agencies noting that global warming from fossil fuels "presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life".

    The EPA's own regulatory analysis last year estimated that Trump's replacement ACE rule would kill an extra 300 to 1,500 people each year by 2030, owing to additional air pollution from the power grid.

    Last month, the Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives passed its first climate change bill in nearly a decade, which would require the Trump administration to keep the US as a part of the Paris Agreement. 

    With a Republican-controlled Senate however, and a threat of a Trump veto, the bill's passage was largely symbolic. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies