By Andres Restrepo, Sierra Club
Last week the Trump administration announced its disgraceful rollback of EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever program to limit dangerous carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution from existing power plants. As Mary Anne Hitt (Senior Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign) has explained, this proposal is nothing more than a sorry attempt to prop up the failing coal industry. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering that Trump’s Acting EPA Administrator, Andy Wheeler, is a former coal industry lobbyist himself. The truth is, dirty coal plants are losing more and more ground each day to affordable clean energy sources like wind, solar, and efficiency. Consumers know that they can save money, protect public health, and help combat the climate crisis by ditching coal and adopting renewable energy. That fundamental reality is not going to change, and the Trump-Wheeler Dirty Power Plan will not bring the coal industry back. The clean energy economy is here, and it’s here to stay.
Unfortunately, though, the Dirty Power Plan will inflict real harm on our families and communities, and that’s why we must do everything in our power to fight back against it. To get a handle on just how bad this proposal is, it’s helpful dig a little bit into the numbers. The first and most important number to know when thinking about the Trump-Wheeler proposal is zero. That’s right, zero. That represents the amount of CO2 emission reductions that the proposal would require states to achieve in their implementation plans. As amazing as it may seem, the Trump-Wheeler plan does not actually set any numerical targets for CO2 emission reductions; instead, it just directs states to set some emission standards for power plants without requiring any minimal level of stringency. EPA Air Administrator Bill Wehrum, one of the architects of the Dirty Power Plan, puts it bluntly: “There is no lower limit, there is no number below which states can’t go.” By contrast, the Clean Power Plan would have required state plans to either ensure that coal, gas, and oil plants reduced their total annual CO2 emission by around 500 million tons of CO2 in 2030 (compared to 2012 levels) or meet strict CO2 emission rates.
Another critical number to know is 1,600. According to EPA’s own upper-bound estimations, that’s the number of additional deaths due to increased soot and smog pollution that would occur annually by 2030 as a result of the Trump-Wheeler plan. EPA also projects up to 120,000 additional asthma attacks, 390,000 more restricted activity days for children, over 100,000 more missed school and work days, and over 750 additional heart attacks per year on account of this new scheme. And these numbers could very well be higher: they are based on EPA’s optimistic guess of the effect the Dirty Power Plan might have on power plant emissions. Without any actual standards in place, we can’t know for sure how much additional suffering this rule would cause, but even the rosiest projections look quite grim indeed.
Then there’s 60 million. That’s the number of additional tons of CO2 that existing power plants will pump into the atmosphere annually by 2030 as a result of the Trump Administration’s Clean Power Plan rollback. From a carbon pollution standpoint, that’s like adding another 20 to 30 coal plants to the fleet—a step in exactly the wrong direction. EPA also predicts an additional 40,000 annual tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions and 50,000 tons of soot-forming sulfur dioxide emissions, plus a significant increase in toxic mercury pollution. These figures (which, again, are especially optimistic) show that, from an emission standpoint, literally doing nothing at all to limit power plant pollution would be nearly the same as adopting the anemic Trump-Wheeler plan. In fact, EPA predicts that generation from coal plants will actually increase under this proposal compared to doing nothing at all, and wind and solar generation will decrease. That’s the exact opposite of what we must do to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
You might guess that the Trump-Wheeler plan would, at the very least, save money and resources. Guess again. EPA has added up all the costs and benefits of this proposal—including the money that power plant owners would save, plus the negative impacts of air pollution and climate damage—and has determined that society would lose between $2 and 11 billion dollars per year in net benefits by replacing the Clean Power Plan with the Trump-Wheeler proposal. This figure is all the more amazing given that EPA’s analysis relies on a sham figure to estimate the damage done to the climate by CO2 emissions. By using this metric, EPA underreports the true impact of carbon emissions (and thus the climate damage that will result from its proposal) by at least 90 to 95 percent. In other words, even after cooking the books in its favor, EPA still had no choice but to conclude that the CPP rollback will rip off the public to the tune of billions of dollar per year.
The proof is in the pudding: on every front—health, climate, energy, economics—the Trump-Wheeler Dirty Power Plan is an abject failure. And, as I discussed previously, it won’t even succeed in advancing Trump’s and Wheeler’s main interest: reviving the faltering coal sector. But in attempting to do so, it will cause a lot of damage and pose the greatest threats to those communities that are already at heightened risk: children, the elderly, those with pre-existing health problems, low-income communities, and communities of color. In the weeks and months to come, Sierra Club will be ramping up the fight to oppose this scam on the American public and forge ahead with true clean energy solutions to the growing climate crisis.