The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Wednesday one of President Donald Trump’s biggest efforts yet to rescue coal, even as projections show the industry in a downward spiral largely due to market forces rather than policy.
The agency unveiled the long-awaited Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, designed to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP), which aimed to curb climate change by lowering power plant carbon dioxide emissions. The Trump administration has repeatedly argued the CPP was a federal overreach, one the ACE rule seeks to correct.
The CPP sought to reduce the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions 32% by 2030, using 2005 levels as a baseline, largely by shifting to natural gas and renewable energy in a blow to coal. By contrast, Trump’s new ACE rule moves power to the states, giving those governments broad authority over coal emissions on a plant-by-plant basis.
“ACE will continue our nation’s environmental progress and it will do so legally and with proper respect for the states,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said during a press conference Wednesday while touting the ACE rule’s boon to coal.
The new rule, Wheeler said, will “ensure coal plants will be part of our clean future.”
Opponents of the new plan took aim at such comments. “Instead of writing an invitation to clean energy producers, President Trump has written a love letter to King Coal,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in a statement. “This new rule is nothing more than corporate welfare for the coal industry.”
The ACE rule’s introduction marks a major policy move for the Trump administration, which has actively sought to gut the CPP. In October 2017, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the agency’s intent to repeal and replace the Obama-era plan. The CPP itself had been in limbo for several years after the Supreme Court halted its enforcement in 2016 while lower court lawsuits against it proceeded in an unprecedented legal move.
Experts have largely seen the ACE rule as a wide-scale effort by Trump to save coal; the president has repeatedly pushed to rescue the industry and campaigned on restoring it to its former prominence. But by virtually any measure, coal is dramatically on the decline, and few experts believe that the ACE rule will change that.
More coal plants shuttered during Trump’s first two years in office than during former President Barack Obama’s entire first term. While increased environmental requirements have played a role in coal’s decline, far more prevalent is the rise of cheaper — and often cleaner — alternatives, like renewable energy and natural gas. Overall improvements in batteries and efficiency have also been a factor.
A study released in March meanwhile found that it would be cheaper to replace most U.S. coal plants with renewable alternatives than to keep them open.
And that trajectory is only likely to continue, with national coal production set to hit a four-decade low this year and again in 2020, even as wind power emerges as an economic powerhouse.
Rather than saving the coal industry, environmental advocates and climate scientists agree that the larger threat is to efforts reigning in harmful pollution emissions: experts worry the ACE rule will hinder Obama-era climate targets.
“How we choose to power our nation will determine how serious we are about confronting climate change,” said Shannon Heyck-Williams, director of climate and energy policy at the National Wildlife Federation, in a statement. Heyck-Williams said the plan “does nothing to live up to these responsibilities.”
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. electricity sector needs to cut its emissions 74% by 2030 in order to avoid crossing the 2 degrees Celsius global warming threshold that the Paris climate agreement seeks to prevent. The ACE rule, experts said Wednesday, would fall far short of paving the way for such a reduction.
Independent analysis published in April found that the Trump plan would in fact increase emissions in 18 states compared to no plan at all.
EPA officials, however, insisted that emissions will still go down under the ACE rule. While the new rule will reduce emissions more than no regulation at all would, the EPA projects it will ultimately offer a reduction of 11 million tons by 2030. The agency had initially argued the ACE rule would see a drop of 13 to 30 million tons and did not explain the shift on Wednesday.
Officials also avoided any mention of the number of lives at risk from increased pollution that is likely to result from keeping coal plants open.
A leading emphasis of the CPP was the number of lives to be saved — the EPA estimated 2,700 to nearly 7,000 premature deaths would be prevented by 2030, due largely to lower pollution levels. Experts worry that the ACE rule could cause up to 1,400 more premature deaths by that time, a number obtained through a regulatory impact analysis using EPA’s own methodology.
But there was no acknowledgement of those numbers on Wednesday. Instead cost was emphasized: the administration says the new rule will save $120 million to $730 million over the next decade, a cost-benefit analysis critics argue has been stacked in favor of ACE.
“With this rule, the EPA is dodging its responsibility,” Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University law school, said in a statement. “The agency is required to control greenhouse gas pollution with the ‘best system of emission reduction,’ but this approach is nowhere close, making the rule legally vulnerable.
“While Americans face mounting threats from climate change, the Trump administration is undermining environmental safeguards and manipulating its math to conceal the damage it is causing.”
The new rule is likely to face lengthy battles in court, with groups like the Center for Biological Diversity expressing optimism that “this attack on our lungs” would not survive a wave of lawsuits. Congressional Democrats similarly indicated that they would seek to fight the new policy.