E.P.A. Finalizes Its Plan to Replace Obama-Era Climate Rules

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2019

The new measure, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule, will very likely prompt a flurry of legal challenges from environmental groups that could have far-reaching implications for global warming. If the Supreme Court ultimately upholds the rule’s approach to the regulation of pollution, it would be difficult or impossible for future presidents to tackle climate change through the Environmental Protection Agency.

Jody Freeman, a professor of environmental law at Harvard University and a former legal counsel in the Obama administration, said the expected legal battle would be “a blockbuster” if it reached the Supreme Court. “It could foreclose a new administration from doing something more ambitious,” she said.

The measure, which is expected to come into effect within 30 days, assumes that the forces of the market will guide the country to a future of cleaner energy by naturally phasing out coal over time. It imposes only modest requirements on coal plants.

While the rule instructs states to reduce emissions, it sets no targets. Instead, it gives states broad latitude to decide how much carbon reduction they consider reasonable and suggests ways to improve efficiency at individual power plants.

At issue is the meaning of the 1972 Clean Air Act. The Obama administration interpreted that law as giving the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to set national restrictions on carbon emissions. The Trump administration asserts that the law limits the agency to regulating emissions at the level of individual power plants.

Jeffrey R. Holmstead, who served in the E.P.A. during both Bush administrations and now represents utility companies as a lawyer for the firm Bracewell, said he thought the current Supreme Court would be skeptical of any future president who tried to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act.

“It will establish what the E.P.A. can and can’t do,” Mr. Holmstead said of the new Trump rule. “I think it really will tie the hands of future administrations.”

Environmental groups say the Trump rule will slow the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when scientists warn that countries must rapidly decarbonize to avoid the most severe effects of climate change, including heat waves, extreme storms, droughts and floods.

Andrew Wheeler, the E.P.A. administrator, has argued that the Obama administration overreached its authority with the Clean Power Plan, which would have set national emissions limits and mandated the broad reconstruction of power grids to move utilities away from coal and toward cleaner options like gas or renewable energy.

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The Supreme Court suspended the implementation of Mr. Obama’s plan in 2016, pending the resolution of legal challenges from 28 states and hundreds of companies. It has never come into force.

The Trump administration’s plan, Mr. Wheeler has said, is legally sound, will not damage the economy and will still go a long way toward reducing carbon.

Mr. Wheeler has maintained that, when the new measure is fully implemented, it will reduce carbon emissions in the power sector by 34 percent below 2005 levels, roughly equal to the goals of the Clean Power Plan.

“The public needs to know how far we’ve come as a nation protecting the environment,” Mr. Wheeler said in a speech at the National Press Club this month. He noted that, from 2005 to 2017, the United States reduced its energy-related carbon emissions by 14 percent. (He did not mention that they rose in 2018 and are on track to continue growing this year.)

Industry leaders welcomed the new rule, saying it grants states and utilities the flexibility to reduce emissions in ways best suited to their individual circumstances. Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said the Trump administration plan would save jobs in coal country.

The Obama plan, he said, prevented the construction of new plants and led to the closing of existing plants. The Trump rule, by contrast, “is going to reduce emissions while not immediately putting an end to our industry,” he said.

Scientific and environmental organizations, though, maintain that the Trump rule could actually cause emissions to rise compared with what the Clean Power Plan would have done and that the Trump rule would be only slightly better than doing nothing at all.

That’s in large part because of a phenomenon known as the emissions rebound effect. While plants that make efficiency improvements like those suggested under the Trump plan will become slightly cleaner, those improvements will generally allow them to operate longer, too. The overall effect is to increase the amount of emissions generated over the lifetime of a particular plant.

According to a joint study produced last year by Harvard University, Syracuse University and Resources for the Future, a research organization, 18 states and the District of Columbia would see higher greenhouseemissions from the Trump rule. In 19 states, pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions would rise.

According to an early Trump administration analysis of its own plan, it also would lead to hundreds more premature deaths and hospitalizations because of that increased air pollution.

“No matter how you slice it, this is a dramatic entrenchment,” Ms. Freeman said. “It’s not just that they’re doing very small, modest steps to reduce emissions. It’s that they’re not creating momentum to substitute renewables and substitute natural gas for coal. That’s what the Obama rule was doing, and it had a long-term view to bigger emission cuts over time.”

Mr. Wheeler, in his recent speech at the National Press Club, pushed back against the perception that the Trump administration was disregarding the threat posed by rising emissions.

“We are addressing climate change,” Mr. Wheeler said, adding, “We take climate change seriously and we are implementing the laws that Congress has given us.”