The Trump administration has proposed to replace the nation's landmark climate regulations with a watered-down version that would do next to nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and wouldn't even set a specific national goal.
If the new plan survives legal challenges, it would fulfill a campaign pledge to abort the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. And in combination with the freezing of automotive emissions standards announced a few weeks ago, it would gut any attempt to achieve through federal regulations the goals of the Paris climate agreement, which the Trump administration has also renounced.
Given that the new rule does not challenge the finding that greenhouse gas pollution from coal-fired power plants causes global warming and endangers people and the planet, nor court rulings that the Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to bring it under control, the proposal is breathtaking in its embrace of apathy.
It would turn over to states the main responsibility of deciding how, or even whether, to reduce emissions, but it would allow them basically only one tool—encouraging power plants to make their use of coal more efficient, burning less fuel per kilowatt-hour of power sent to the grid. Any upgrades would be plant by plant and boiler by boiler.
In contrast, the Obama regulations, which were waylaid by litigation and never took effect, would have comprehensively reshaped the power grid itself and steered it away from coal, while giving the states broad leeway in the use of flexible, system-wide approaches to achieve the transition to cleaner energy—a process that was already underway.
The Trump regulations are tailored in favor of coal, not the climate. The words "climate" and "climate change" barely even occur in the hundreds of pages released on Tuesday for 60 days of public comment. The regulations were ushered in by Scott Pruitt, the disgraced former EPA chief who had joined legal challenges to the Obama plan as Oklahoma's state attorney general before coming to Washington with Trump; along with Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who has taken Pruitt's place, and Bill Wehrum, formerly a fossil fuel industry lawyer and now head of the EPA's office of air quality.
To turn the existing regulations upside down, favoring coal at the cost of climate, they had to perform five feats.
The newly published rule narrows the vision of how best to control emissions. It accepts that the regulations might let emission reductions falter. It provides a loophole for increases in other forms of deadly pollution. It also reinvents the math used to calculate the costs and benefits of its approach.
The core task facing the EPA under the section of the Clean Air Act that would control carbon dioxide emission controls at large stationary sources like power plants is to define the "best system of emission reduction" that has been "adequately demonstrated."
Under Obama, the agency adopted a far-reaching, system-wide approach that allowed emissions trading, efficiency upgrades, fuel substitution and other approaches widely used on the interconnected grid. Inevitably, this accelerated the transition from coal that market forces and other regulations had already set in motion.
The coal industry and coal-heavy states objected, saying the federal government was over-reaching, and they sued to limit any regulations to the individual boilers and smokestacks where coal is burned, known as "inside the fence."
EPA's choice of boiler efficiency as the "best system" gives the coal industry exactly the change it sought in court. (For now, the litigation remains in limbo.)
The rollback, while undoing most of what Obama sought, is meant to give some coal plants a new lease on life, limiting the regulatory damage to the dirtiest of fuels—if not to the climate.
Although it's hard to predict future emissions amid the shifting trends of economics and technology, it's clear that the Trump proposal would slow the improvement.
Under every scenario the agency examined, this plan would fall short of the carbon dioxide emissions reductions expected under Obama's plan—by about 3 percent in the 2030s.
New Pollution Rules
Aside from the greenhouse gas emissions' impacts on global warming, this plan is also projected to increase other kinds of pollution, such as smog and sooty particles that make people sick and can even kill.
Why would cutting carbon emissions from a plant increase other pollution? Because EPA is only allowing one fix, the more efficient use of coal. If that makes a plant's electricity cheaper, the power company will sell more to the grid. And as the plant meets this increased demand, it will give off more of all kinds of pollution.
Under the Clean Air Act, a plant that is modernized in a way that increases its smoke and fumes has to apply for "new source" permits, and usually has to upgrade pollution controls across the board. That could make the whole project unaffordable, and the industry has been trying hard to undo this requirement.
Now the Trump administration has decided, in a highly controversial move, to build into its new climate regulations a loophole for these other pollutants. By inserting a change to the new source permitting rule into this climate regulation, it gives up one of the most valuable co-benefits of climate regulations—extra protections for public health.
Calculating Social Costs
All this extra pollution comes with high costs to society.
For starters, the Trump administration calculates that by 2035 as many as 1,400 more people will die every year from the changes being proposed.
As in every environmental regulation, it is complicated to add up all the costs and benefits in dollar terms and compare them to test whether the rules are worthwhile. Here, the Trump administration has taken several steps to make its approach seem worthier.
For example, it counts only the climate benefits to the United States, not worldwide. And it includes steep discounts in the value of future benefits when translating them into today's dollars, a calculation known as the "social cost of carbon."
Despite these manipulations, the Trump EPA's analysis shows that this rule, compared to the Clean Power Plan, sacrifices both climate and health benefits.
All these calculations are blurred by a key decision embedded in the new approach as a matter of ideology rather than law.
Usually, as in the Obama plan, the key objectives in Clean Air Act regulations are set by the federal agency, which then turns to the states to manage the details of compliance. This time, it is being left entirely to the states to set emissions targets, and even to decide the stringency of the one approach the EPA is telling them to use—improvements to the efficiency of coal combustion.
There is no floor being set on the effectiveness of emissions controls. Instead, while giving the states no flexibility in the "best system" for reductions, Trump gives them free rein to do practically nothing.
For states that are eager to reduce their emissions—and there are many of them, including the cap-and-trade schemes of California and the Northeastern members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—the administration merely seeks comments on how to mesh the various approaches.
Instead, some states, and even some utilities, will join forces with environmental advocates and sue.
This proposal, after 60 days of comments that may lead to some revisions, will certainly be challenged in court. The question of how the Clean Air Act ultimately will address the climate crisis will, in the end, come before the Supreme Court, tilted in a new conservative direction by Trump's appointees.
Even without any legal delays, however, this rule would not take effect until well after the end of Trump's term in 2020. In the meantime, continuing emissions of carbon dioxide from the nation's power plants will follow the whims of the marketplace, consumer and business choices, state and other federal regulations, the economy's rising and falling tides and the emergence of new, cheaper, cleaner technologies.
The decades-long struggle to bring the Clean Air Act to bear of the problem is far from over.