After President Donald Trump called coal “indestructible” last week while also expressing concern for the number of birds killed by wind turbines, it was all the more evident that the Clean Power Plan — the Obama-era strategy intended to dramatically slash America’s reliance on coal-generated electricity — was in hot water.
Tuesday morning, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, announced a strategy dubbed the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule, or ACE, to completely replace the Clean Power Plan.
The ACE rule is specifically designed to keep the American coal industry, which has been in significant decline for over a decade, afloat.
The problem with burning coal has been recognized for over a century. Igniting the jet-black rock generates loads of carbon dioxide, the potent greenhouse gas largely responsible for stoking an accelerated warming of Earth’s climate.
“The Trump administration clearly wants to avoid doing anything about climate change and to avoid it at all costs,” Joe Goffman, former Senior Counsel in the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA, said in an interview.
When President Barak Obama announced the Clean Power Plan in 2015, he noted carbon dioxide levels were the highest they’ve been on Earth in 800,000 years thanks to human emissions, but the U.S. had yet to institute federal limits on the amount of carbon that power plants could release into the atmosphere.
“Think about that,” said Obama.
Just over three years later, the Clean Power Plan, which intended to gradually transition the U.S electrical grid to cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energies, is effectively dead — unless another presidential administration resurrects it.
The goal of the plan was to reduce carbon pollution from the U.S. power sector by over 30 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.
The newly proposed ACE plan, at 236 pages, bears little resemblance to the Clean Power Plan.
Rather than facilitating a transition away from coal, it supports the industry’s existence. The ACE plan largely centers on giving each state latitude in making their respective coal plants more efficient, the current U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum, said in a press call Tuesday morning.
However, Ann Carlson, director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law, emphasized over email that the new rule may give states the ability to continue using coal, but it does little to address the problem of sending potent heat-trapping carbon emissions into Earth’s atmosphere.
“They’re [the current EPA] going through an elaborate charade as if their purpose is to make sure the U.S. does nothing about climate change,” added Goffman.
Trying to keep coal alive
A crux of the ACE rule is a list of engineering changes that will result in power plants burning coal more efficiently, said Goffman, who is now executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program.
For instance, coal plants may be required to do a better of job insulating the heat they generate when burning coal, allowing the plants to generate more electricity while using fewer fossil fuels.
“That’s all well and good, but there’s a problem,” said Goffman. “Coal-fired power plants are becoming increasingly uneconomic.”
The entire industry has been in decline for over a decade. Ten years ago, coal was responsible for producing about half the nation’s electricity. Now it’s down to around 30 percent, as natural gas and renewable energies continue to pick up steam.
“Coal is no longer the energy of choice,” said Goffman. “The administration views that as a problem.”
In the end, the cheapest form of energy will win the race, but transitioning the energy sector to cleaner burning or zero-emission energy production will still take decades.
The Clean Power Plan intended to facilitate the process, as the EPA “has the responsibility to require significant reductions in carbon dioxide,” said Goffman.
This was spelled out by a landmark Supreme Court case in 2017, in which the court ruled that the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions, just as the agency reins in pollution emitted by cars and trucks.
What comes next
The ACE plan almost certainly has a steep road ahead of it before it becomes an actual nation-wide environmental rule.
First, the EPA is required to hold a 60-day comment period, in which anyone can submit their thoughts about the new rule. Then, the environmental agency must respond to those comments. Even if all goes swimmingly, it likely won’t become a final rule for at least a year, UCLA’s Carlson said.
But, that said, it’s likely lawsuits will be brought against the EPA for failing to adequately regulate greenhouse gases, said Carlson. If so, the EPA may have quite a battle ahead. The federal government has already concluded greenhouse gas emissions stoke a number of damaging effects, like extreme weather events.
As for the fate of the Clean Power Plan, Carlson noted that it was still mired “in legal limbo” since the Supreme Court held up its implementation in 2016, though courts may now decide that “the case is essentially moot.”
Though, if the Clean Power Plan was ever given a chance to limit carbon pollution, Carlson said it would be in a good position to be an effective environmental rule.
“The Clean Power Plan was eminently achievable — in fact many states needed to do very little to meet their targets under the plan,” she said, noting the rise of cleaner natural gas and renewable energies many states were already using.
But if the new ACE proposal becomes law, an attempt to prop up the ailing coal industry will ensue, while largely ignoring the mounting, and starkly visible, threats from a warming Earth.
“It’s fulfilling an ideological fantasy about climate change and coal,” said Goffman.