WASHINGTON - The Trump administration announced Monday (Oct 9) that it would take formal steps to repeal President Barack Obama's signature policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, setting up a bitter fight over the future of the United States' efforts to tackle global warming.
At an event in eastern Kentucky, Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said that his predecessors had departed from regulatory norms in crafting the Clean Power Plan, which was finalised in 2015 and would have pushed states to move away from coal in favour of sources of electricity that produce fewer carbon emissions.
"The war on coal is over," Pruitt said. "Tomorrow in Washington, DC, I will be signing a proposed rule to roll back the Clean Power Plan. No better place to make that announcement than Hazard, Kentucky."
The repeal proposal, which will be filed in the Federal Register on Tuesday (Oct 10), fulfills a promise President Donald Trump made to eradicate his predecessor's environmental legacy.
Eliminating the Clean Power Plan makes it less likely the United States can fulfill its promise as part of the Paris climate agreement to ratchet down emissions that are warming the planet and contributing to heat waves and sea-level rise. Trump has vowed to abandon that international accord.
In announcing the repeal, Pruitt made many of the same arguments that he had made for years to Congress and in lawsuits: that the Obama administration exceeded its legal authority in an effort to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. (Last year, the Supreme Court blocked the rule from taking effect while courts assessed those lawsuits.)
A leaked draft of the repeal proposal asserts that the country would save US$33 billion ($45 billion) by not complying with the regulation and rejects the health benefits the Obama administration had calculated from the original rule.
Coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants are responsible for about one-third of the United States' carbon dioxide emissions. When the Clean Power Plan was unveiled in 2015, it was expected to cut power sector emissions 32 per cent by 2030, relative to 2005. While many states are already shifting away from coal power for economic reasons, experts say scrapping the rule could slow that transition.
Environmental groups and several states plan to challenge the repeal proposal in federal courts, arguing against Pruitt's move on both scientific and economic grounds.
Industry groups cheered the announcement, but have also indicated that they would prefer that Pruitt replace the Clean Power Plan with a new, more modest regulation on power plants in order to blunt any court challenges. The EPA is still required to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions because of a 2009 legal opinion known as the endangerment finding.
"We have always believed that there is a better way to approach greenhouse gas emissions reductions," Karen A Harbert, president of the Chamber of Commerce's Global Energy Institute, said in a statement. "We welcome the opportunity for business to be at the table with the EPA and other stakeholders to develop an approach that lowers emissions, preserves America's energy advantage, and respects the bounds of the Clean Air Act."
While repeal of the Clean Power Plan offers a reprieve for the United States' coal industry, it is unlikely to halt the decline of coal altogether. Even in the absence of the rule, many utilities around the country have opted to shift to natural gas, wind and solar, driven by cost concerns and state-level policies. Many states, like California and New York, are already moving ahead of the targets set by the Clean Power Plan as they develop their own climate policies.
Gov John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Democrat, noted that his state has plans to exceed the goals that had been set under the Clean Power Plan because the state is closing coal plants early and developing jobs in wind and other renewables.
"We have dramatically cleaner air and we are saving money. My question to the EPA would be, 'which part of that don't you like?'" Hickenlooper said.
A new analysis by the research firm Rhodium Group estimated that US electricity emissions are currently on track to fall 27 per cent to 35 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, roughly in the range of what the Clean Power Plan originally envisioned, even if the regulation is repealed.
But John Larsen, author of the Rhodium Group analysis, estimated that if Obama's policies had remained in place, as many as 21 states would have had to make deeper reductions than they are currently expected to do without the rule - including Texas, West Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - and emissions most likely would have fallen further than the 32 per cent originally envisioned.
Jody Freeman, director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School, said the Energy Department proposal combined with the Clean Power Plan repeal signals the Trump administration is putting its thumb on the scale in favour of fossil fuels.
"You see a pretty powerful message. Disavow any effort to control greenhouse gases in the power sector, and instead, intervene in the market to promote coal. It's a wow," she said.
Pruitt's proposal for repeal will now have to go through a formal public-comment period before being finalised, a process that could take months. Pruitt will also ask the public for comment on what a replacement rule should look like, but the EPA has not offered a timeline.
Environmental groups and Democratic-controlled states are expected to challenge these moves on multiple fronts.
"Every step of this, from the repeal to the replacement, will involve a lot of time-consuming litigation, and we could ultimately see this end up in the Supreme Court," said Richard L Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University.
That raises the question of whether the Trump administration can craft and finalise a replacement rule by the 2020 election. Failure to do so, some industry groups worry, could allow a new administration to start over and impose a more stringent climate plan on power plants.
Partly for that reason, many states are already preparing for the prospect of tougher carbon regulations down the road.
Consider Arkansas, one of more than two dozen states that challenged the Clean Power Plan in court. Ted J Thomas, chairman of the Arkansas Public Service Commission, says that his state is nonetheless in the process of shifting from coal to cheaper natural gas. The initial rule also convinced the state to start exploring clean-energy options, like expanding wind power, promoting the use of smart meters, and developing a working group to look at carbon capture technology for coal plants.
"Even if they repeal the Clean Power Plan, or replace it with something that doesn't require us to do very much, you still have to reckon with the fact that ultimately regulations on carbon are coming," Thomas said. "So we need to develop options to deal with that other than sticking our heads in the sand and hoping we can just file lawsuits forever."
"You can either be prepared or unprepared," he added, "and that's a pretty simple choice."