Environmental Protection Agency rolls back Obama’s Clean Power Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently finalized its repeal of the Clean Power Plan, one of President Obama’s signature climate change policies that sought to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power plants. This policy will be replaced by the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, a less stringent regulation that could potentially extend reliance on coal in some parts of our country. The repeal of the Clean Power Plan represents the culmination of the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken or even undo the Obama-era environmental regulations on GHG emissions from both the energy and transportation sectors.

The newly issued ACE rule is expected to decrease emissions of coal-fired power plants by making on-site efficiency upgrades, or ‘heat rate improvements’, that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is released. However, unlike the Clean Power Plan, it does not set specific GHG emissions cuts for each state but rather gives them the authority to decide to what extent they want to scale back their GHG emissions.

The ACE plan does not explicitly require states to move away from coal. This can practically prolong the life of coal plants in some parts of the US since utility companies might decide to spend money on upgrading existing plants instead of investing in lower or no-carbon energy sources.

A recently published study showed that implementing the ACE rule would actually lead to increased GHG emissions in some US states. According to the study’s authors, improving the efficiency of coal plants would enable them to generate more energy from the same amount of fuel. This would make coal more cost-effective which could create emissions rebound effect, a situation where the number of operating coal plants would increase since utilities would have a greater incentive to invest in coal-fired electricity generation.  As a result, 19 states where coal is still a common source of electricity generation could experience higher GHG emission levels compared to what would happen if there was no environmental regulation in place at all. Among these states, Maryland would have the greatest increase in emissions (8.7%). Significant increases in GHG emissions would also occur in states such as Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas. 

The ACE regulation is a major setback in the fight against climate change and a serious threat to public health since it can further increase air pollution across the US. It is estimated that 1 out of every 25 premature deaths in the US is due to exposure to air pollution.  Implementing the ACE rule will put even more lives at risk since the EPA’s initial analysis of this regulation has shown that it could cause an additional 470 to 1400 premature deaths each year by 2030.

After receiving backlash for going ahead with this policy, the EPA is considering changing the way it calculates the health risks of air pollution. This would enable the administration to justify the passing of this rule and further defend other environmental rollbacks. The administration states that the ACE rule is a more nuanced approach that allows state legislators rather than Washington officials to determine the right energy mix for their region. Arguing that the Clean Power Plan was exceeding the federal government’s authority, they are convinced that ACE would empower states to continue to reduce emissions while providing affordable and reliable energy for all Americans.

The good news for our environment and public health is that it is highly unlikely that the ACE regulation will be able to ‘revive’ the coal industry in the US since market forces are already pushing utility companies to move away from coal. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 53% of scheduled capacity retirements that are expected to occur at the end of 2019 will be coal. Simultaneously, there has been a consistent shift towards natural gas and renewables as main sources of electricity generation.   

There is also some good news for New Yorkers as well. New York State recently passed legislation that requires 70% of its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Additionally, the NYS’ Department of Environmental Conservation adopted rules that will force power plants to stop burning coal in the state by the end of 2020.

NYLCV will continue to advocate for statewide policies that reduce GHG emissions and improve our air quality.