By John Walke, Natural Resources Defense Council
I know you’re suffering from anxiety overload as a result of the news cycle. Believe me, I’m suffering, too. But I’m afraid I need to add one more worrisome item to your psychic burden. Under President Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—which is supposed to protect the American people and the country’s natural resources from pollution, toxic chemicals, and other harms born of industrial activity—has been effectively hijacked by the polluting industries that fall within its regulatory purview. And unless more people are made aware of this unprecedented hijacking and come together to do something about it, the effects on our air, our climate, and our public health could be devastating.
First, some background. Back in 2015, President Obama proposed a bold new set of emissions standards for U.S. power plants. Known collectively as the Clean Power Plan (CPP), these standards were developed by the Obama administration’s EPA in acknowledgement of the urgent need to curb carbon pollution emanating largely from coal-powered facilities—the kind of pollution that leads directly to poor air quality, respiratory ailments, and the atmospheric warming behind climate change.
But before the CPP could take effect, Donald Trump won the presidency, and the owners of many older, coal-fired power plants—the dirtiest there are—celebrated. Leaning on newly installed and openly industry-friendly figures like Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler at the EPA, they convinced the Trump administration to scuttle the CPP and replace it with a plan that would actually boost American coal consumption at the very moment we so desperately need to be weaning ourselves from this filthiest of fuels.
The new plan was to be called the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, and everyone involved in its inception knew that it would need to be crafted very deftly, indeed, in order to appear to be both in compliance with the law and in sync with public sentiment regarding air pollution. In August 2018, Trump’s EPA unveiled the ACE, and immediately the administration’s scheme was made clear. The new rule was designed to prolong the life of coal-fired power plants, allowing them to spew carbon and other dangerous air pollutants (such as sulfur dioxide) into the air for many more years to come—by redefining downward our most basic notions of efficiency, letting power plants increase pollution, then patting these facilities on the back for their supposed commitment to cleaning up their acts.
The ACE, like the CPP it’s intended to replace, gets into some seriously wonky territory that makes it a tough read for the general public. But one relatively easy-to-understand aspect of it serves as a potent symbol of the Trump administration’s bad faith. More than any other detail, perhaps, it illustrates the cynical manner in which the rule’s architects hope to prop up our deservedly floundering coal sector through emissions-efficiency legerdemain.
The New Source Review (NSR) program has been an important component of the Clean Air Act since 1977. Put simply, it’s the pre-construction permitting process for any new or updated stationary facility that emits, or is expected to emit, large amounts of air pollution. (Think coal-fired power plants or oil refineries.) Those hoping to build or modify such a facility, when it can be shown that the result will significantly increase air pollution, must agree to include state-of-the-art controls designed to minimize these air-pollution increases as much as possible. The owners of older, outdated power plants hate NSR, since complying with its rules can add greatly to their construction and maintenance costs if and when the time comes to modernize. For years they’ve been champing at the bit to alter the rule to their own specifications, thus weakening it. The courts, so far, have held them at bay.
But now, in President Trump’s EPA, these polluters believe they’ve finally found the loophole-expanding team they’ve been waiting for. In the ACE, the EPA proposes to make a major change in the way it calculates increased emissions from modified power plants. Historically, the agency has used as its metric the actual annual increase in emissions—for example, looking at whether smog-forming nitrogen oxide pollution will increase by more than 40 tons per year. This is a pretty straightforward and conventional way of measuring air pollution, and one that’s used across environmental agencies at the federal and state levels.
But under the Trump administration’s proposed NSR changes, the EPA would allow these emissions to be calculated at an hourly rate as opposed to an annual one. If a power plant seeking to upgrade could demonstrate in its application that its proposed modifications would result in a lower hourly emissions rate, it would then be exempted from the NSR standards’ cleanup requirements, according to the new rule.
So what’s the big deal? It’s this: Any outdated power plant that’s hoping to upgrade is almost certainly going to avail itself of marginally more efficient technologies that will end up lowering its hourly emissions rate. But these same upgrades will also allow the plant to run for much longer periods of time, uninterrupted. The result: many, many more hours per year during which the facility is online—and polluting.
Which means (yes, you guessed it) an increase in overall annual amounts of dangerous air pollution, and in many cases a sizable increase—hundreds or even thousands of tons more per year—even as hourly emissions rates go down. Under the proposed Trump EPA rule, these massive overall pollution increases would escape state-of-the-art air pollution controls because the proposal cynically declares them not to be pollution increases at all, at least not when measured by the hour.
Weakening the NSR safeguards in this manner is just one of many too-clever-by-half ways that President Trump’s EPA hopes to conceal its pro-coal, pro-polluter agenda from the people the agency is charged with protecting. In truth, the Affordable Clean Energy act, in its entirety, represents a con job being perpetrated on the American people: “a free pass for carbon emissions,” in the words of Kathleen Lambert of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It pretends to be remedying perceived flaws in the Clean Power Plan in a reasonable, non-aggressive way. But its real purpose is nothing less than nullifying the Clean Power Plan’s long-term goal of cleaning our air, safeguarding public health, and fighting climate change. It represents one of the biggest attempted rollbacks of clean air safeguards in the EPA’s history: allowing dirty power plants to increase harmful smog and soot pollution by potentially thousands of tons per year, all while masquerading as a means of curbing carbon emissions.
As a policy proposal, it’s laughable in its transparent acquiescence to industry’s wishes. As law, it would be radical—and incredibly dangerous.