Ep. 11: Powering Down the Clean Power Plan

The Centralia “Big Hanaford” power plant is the only commercial coal-fired power plant left in the state of Washington. Currently, it’s coal-fired boilers are set to be decommissioned by 2025. Photo: Kid Clutch via Flickr

The Centralia “Big Hanaford” power plant is the only commercial coal-fired power plant left in the state of Washington. Currently, it’s coal-fired boilers are set to be decommissioned by 2025. Photo: Kid Clutch via Flickr

Last week — to the surprise of no one — Donald Trump issued an executive order to begin dismantling the Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan is a historic regulation created by the Obama administration in 2015 that, for the first time ever, regulates the amount of carbon dioxide that American power plants — the country’s biggest source of greenhouse gases — can produce. But the plan never really got off the ground. Shortly after its creation, more than a dozen states sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the rule, and the Supreme Court has now put the Clean Power Plan in a state of legal limbo.

So is Trump’s executive order the final nail in the coffin? Not necessarily — in part because EPA rulemaking is a complicated process. For the Trump administration to actually get rid of the Clean Power Plan, it will likely have to create a whole new rule to replace it. That will involve lengthy public comment and revision periods, which could take months or years. In addition, the Trump administration doesn’t appear to be challenging a prior and more fundamental legal precedent establishing carbon dioxide as a pollutant that can be regulated by the EPA. “It would be pretty difficult to build a body of evidence against that and make that argument to the court,” says Emily Holden, who covers the Clean Power Plan for E&E News. “Most of the world's scientists agree that carbon dioxide is causing climate change — and primarily because of human action.”

One thing Trump’s order may have a more immediate impact on, however, is the way the federal government defines the so-called “social cost of carbon.” When the federal government produces a new regulation, it has to spell out what the rules cost — to industry, for example — and weigh them against things like benefits to public health. To do that, the government puts a number on everything. And when it comes to the impacts of carbon, Trump wants that number reduced.

“With carbon and with climate change, it can be harder to sort of visualize and understand the damages and the cost to society,” says Janet McCabe, who was one of the architects of the Clean Power Plan and headed the EPA’s air office under Obama. “[With] a localized air pollutant, you have people immediately being affected and maybe having to go to the emergency room for an asthma attack. With climate, the impacts are longer term. I’m concerned about going backwards to a time where those costs didn’t need to be considered and not forwards to a time where we’re all thinking about those things together.”

Trump's push to rollback the Clean Power Plan also probably won’t do much to achieve one of its main objectives: To bring back the coal industry and put miners back to work. That’s because most analysts agree regulations aren't really what's putting a hurt on the coal industry; it’s the cheap cost of natural gas. “If you just look at what’s happening in the markets right now, I think you can easily say it’s going to be difficult to impossible to bring back the coal industry in any meaningful way," says E&E News' Emily Holden. "If you look at some of the numbers that came out of the Energy Information Administration, when they looked at what would happen without the Clean Power Plan, they saw there could be a moderate rebound in some regions of coal mining in the U.S. — mainly just the West. You’re not going to see jobs coming back to Appalachia. You aren’t going to see power companies coming in and building new coal plants, and that’s pretty much the only thing that would bring back the coal industry.”

And just how much will all this impact U.S. carbon emissions overall? And does Trump’s order have global implications for the historic Paris Climate Agreement? You can get our take on that — and hear more in-depth analysis from E&E News’ Emily Holden and former EPA official Janet McCabe — on this week’s episode of the podcast.

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