The Trump administration has proposed an overhaul of U.S. power plant emissions rules, unveiling a plan that would allow individual states to determine how they will regulate pollutants.
The proposal, called the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) plan and discussed during the keynote address at the MEGA Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 21, would essentially dissolve the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP) that the current president said was part of the previous administration’s “war on coal.”
President Donald Trump is expected to talk about the plan at a rally in West Virginia today. Mandy Gunasekara, principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), unveiled the ACE proposal at MEGA on Tuesday morning during opening remarks at the conference, which deals with power plant emissions and is sponsored by Air & Waste Management Association along with the EPA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Institute of Clean Air Companies (ICAC).
Trump’s plan, which would be overseen by the EPA, would allow states to set their own pollution rules. It would also relax rules for power plants that otherwise would need upgrades to control emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants such as sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). The EPA sent the proposed plan to the White House for review last month.
The proposal brought swift reaction from environmentalists and others, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, who on Twitter said the Trump proposal is “a declaration of war against America and all of humanity – it will not stand. Truth and common sense will triumph over Trump’s insanity.”
Barbara Underwood, New York’s attorney general, said she would sue the federal government if the rule is adopted, “in order to protect New Yorkers, and all Americans, from the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change.”
Gunasekara said the new proposal will be subject to a 60-day comment period before it could be implemented.
The EPA, in an impact analysis of the Trump plan reviewed by The Washington Post, said the plan would affect more than 300 U.S. power plants and provide operators with incentives to keep coal plants operating rather than replacing them with natural gas or renewable energy projects.
The agency also has acknowledged the rule likely will lead to an increase in airborne pollutants that could contribute to health issues, although EPA officials have said other regulations are in place to handle those.
Gunasekara said the new rule would require states to submit their plans to the EPA for regulating power plants over a three-year period after the proposal is finalized, which is expected next year. It specifically asks for “patterns of performance” for existing coal plants. The EPA would then have one year to determine whether a state’s plan is sufficient. If the EPA determines it is not, the agency would then design a plan for that state, according to Gunasekara.
“Instead of [the federal government] putting out a strict standard of performance, we’re allowing the states to determine that strict standard of performance,” Gunasekara told the MEGA audience, including POWER. “No two coal plants are the same. It should be up to the states to ensure that everyone has access to reliable and affordable energy in that state.”
‘Ensure Coal Has a Place on the Grid’
Replacing the CPP has been one of Trump’s priorities. “The president has constantly recognized the importance of coal,” said Steven Winberg, assistant secretary of fossil energy for the DOE, who also spoke Tuesday morning at MEGA. “We need to ensure that coal has a place on the grid.”
Said Winberg: “We need to get moving on the next generation of coal plants that are cleaner, more efficient, and have a small footprint. We’re looking at 50-to-350-MW plants that are much more efficient. And they need to be able to ‘load follow’ due to the increased amount of intermittent power [mostly wind and solar] coming onto the grid. Coal plants have traditionally [provided] baseload power, and new plants need to be able to load follow.”
The CPP has a complex history. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court found that CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) met the definition of “air pollutants” under the Clean Air Act, prompting the Bush-era EPA to seek public comment on how it should respond to the court decision. In December 2009, the EPA issued its “endangerment finding,” making the broad determination that GHG emissions endanger public health and welfare. The EPA proposed the Clean Power Plan under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act in June 2014. The final rule, deemed by many as more ambitious but flexible than the proposal, was issued in August 2015.
The Supreme Court in 2016 issued a stay that blocked the CPP from being implemented while a federal court heard arguments from several states and the coal industry that sued to block the rule. That case has yet to be resolved and the CPP has never taken effect.
The CPP sought to cut CO2 emissions to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. By contrast, the Post reported that the EPA’s analysis of the new plan shows a reduction in CO2 emissions of between 0.7% and 1.5% from 2005 levels by 2030.
Gunasekara said the ACE rule is really “presenting guidelines for states to address CO2 from coal plants. States can determine the best system for emissions reduction.” She said the plan is designed to encourage coal plant operators to focus on “heat rate efficiency improvements,” and decide “whether a technology works, or whether it doesn’t.”
Options for Reducing Emissions Limited Under New Plan
The new plan also limits options for reducing emissions. The CPP said states could meet their reduction targets by switching coal-fired plants to burn natural gas, or by increasing the use of wind and solar power. The Trump plan says reductions are limited to only what coal plants can do on-site—known as “inside the fence”—such as improving their heat rate efficiency. Some analysts have said that, in effect, means coal plants could run longer and harder as long as they show efficiency improvements.
Environmentalists charge that emissions, which have been falling for several years as dozens of U.S. coal plants have been retired—with their generation replaced by renewable energy and natural gas-fired power plants—will begin to rise again as the administration promotes coal-fired power. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions declined by 14%, or 861 million metric tons, from 2005 to 2017, with much of the reduction due to the closure of dozens of older coal-fired plants.
Janet McCabe, currently a senior law fellow with the Environmental Law & Policy Center and previously the lead air standards official with Obama’s EPA, noted how the power sector is “hugely significant in terms of emissions” in comments to the Times and said a rollback of pollution standards would exacerbate climate change. “The science is just getting clearer and clearer every day,” she said. “I don’t know how many times people need to hear that we’re having the warmest summer on record or how many storms people need to see. This is no fooling.”
EPA Sticking to Endangerment Finding
EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum told reporters in a press briefing on August 21 that the ACE rule “is a regulation of GHGs, no doubt about it.” But the rule seeks to bring the EPA back to its “core function” of regulating emissions from “things that emit—in this case power plants—and not regulate other aspects of the industry like the electricity grid.” He added: “So we are not regulating dispatch of power plants, we are not trying to impose a requirement to implement renewable energy resources. Those are things the Clean Power Plan did.”
However, with the ACE rule, the EPA also isn’t proposing to rescind the “endangerment finding,” in which the Obama-era EPA found GHGs are a danger to public health and welfare, Wehrum said. “We’re not proposing to find that power plants do not contribute to come to that endangerment. We are proposing, though, to revise [the Clean Power Plan] to bring it back within the legal authority that we have under the Clean Air Act,” Wehrum said.
Asked whether combating climate change is a priority for the EPA, Wehrum said that Congress “made the decision for us under this part of the Clean Air Act.” But Congress also said that states have primary authority for regulating their emissions. “So we have a responsibility to set up a framework; states have a responsibility to regulate, and Congress gave states a lot of latitude to decide what it is they’re going to do. And so we are faithfully implementing the law this way.”
Administration Wants to Prop Up Coal
The Trump administration has tried to prop up the coal industry by supporting energy market reforms that would incent coal-fired generation, including assertions that coal plant retirements—and also a loss of nuclear power—threaten the reliability of the nation’s power grid and also national security.
Trump’s EPA last year said the CPP overstepped federal law by setting emissions standards that power plants could not reasonably meet. In December, the agency said it would write a replacement plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, likely a plan far less stringent than the CPP.
Coal groups have been vocal in their support of the administration’s effort. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a trade group representing coal producers, earlier this year said, “The CPP is illegal because the rule greatly exceeds EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fueled power plants under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. Even if the CPP were determined to be lawful (which it is not), it would establish bad environmental policy that would have substantial adverse energy and economic impacts.”
Michelle Bloodworth, who was named the new president and CEO of the ACCCE in July, told the Times: “I certainly think we are supportive of what the administration is doing and we applaud their efforts.”
Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, also applauded the president’s plan, saying in a statement: “The Clean Power Plan (CPP) grew EPA power in unprecedented and harmful ways, marking a clear deviation from the agency’s traditional role by grossly misapplying the Clean Air Act. The ‘Affordable Clean Energy Rule’ proposed by the Trump Administration corrects some of the CPP’s worst flaws. By reining in the EPA, the ‘Affordable Clean Energy’ rule limits the negative economic impacts a back door federal renewable mandate would have on American families. However, we still maintain that only a full repeal of the Obama era regulation will fully protect ratepayers.”
Environmentalists attacked the new proposal from all sides. Lissa Lynch, staff attorney for federal policy in the Climate & Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “The Clean Power Plan replacement proposed today by Acting EPA Administrator [Andrew] Wheeler demonstrates the Trump EPA’s unflagging commitment to propping up polluters. The proposal is designed to require power plants to do nothing to reduce their carbon pollution, and it could even result in greater climate-polluting emissions – a worse than do-nothing replacement for the Clean Power Plan.
“To prop up failing coal-fired power plants, the proposal sets paltry pollution limits based on minimal ‘tune-ups’ at those power plants and then authorizes states to weaken the standards even further – or even eliminate them altogether,” Lynch continued. “On top of that, the proposal would create new loopholes by gutting New Source Review permitting requirements, enabling power plants to increase their emissions. To try to justify the CPP rollback, the proposal exaggerates the compliance costs and underestimates the health and environmental benefits of reducing power plant pollution. But despite these accounting gimmicks, EPA’s own calculations show that the compliance costs of the Trump proposal will barely save any compliance costs compared to the CPP, and could even cost more.”
Winberg, though, countered that argument, saying coal remains important to the U.S. He said the nation must focus on “upgrading the coal fleet, transforming technology, and reducing the cost of CO2.” He acknowledged the nation “has an aging coal fleet, and we need to do something about that. Coal is going to be part of the U.S. energy mix for decades to come. Boosting U.S. energy production is important for national security, and we are seeing a new focus on policies that level the playing field for coal.”
Here are links to more of POWER’s coverage of the Clean Power Plan:
—Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor. Sonal Patel, a POWER associate editor, and Aaron Larson, POWER’s executive editor, contributed to this report. (@POWERmagazine).