By Jonathan Hahn, Sierra Club
At a raucous political rally in West Virginia last year, just hours after the Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to roll back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, Donald Trump amused the crowd with talk of blowing up clean energy.
“We love [coal], right?” he said while the crowd repeatedly cheered “Trump Trump Trump,” encouraging him on. “And you know that’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills. They fall down real quick…You can do a lot of things to those solar panels. But you know what you can’t hurt? Coal.”
The EPA followed through on Trump’s love affair with dirty energy this week when it finalized the process for replacing the Clean Power Plan—Obama’s signature climate initiative for reducing carbon pollution and particulate matter from the nation’s energy sector—with the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule. At best, the new rule will do nothing to regulate dangerous greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants, and at worst, ramp those emissions back up.
As the world careens towards a climate crisis with untold implications for current and future generations, the Trump administration has answered the call of history with a call to do nothing. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Affordable Clean Energy rule—a cynical attempt to bolster “indestructible” coal, and with it, the status quo.
“What the Affordable Clean Energy rule does is allow coal-fired power plants to remain a major source of greenhouse gas emissions,” Barbara Gottlieb, the environment and health program director for Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and the co-author of Coal’s Assault on Human Health, told Sierra. “The ACE is totally inadequate to reduce CO2 emissions. So that means that it doesn’t help us address the major health challenge of this century, which is to slow the breakneck advance of climate change. It endangers the future of our kids and of our grandkids.”
The nation’s coal-fired power plants account for around 40 percent of the CO2 produced nationwide. When power plants burn coal to generate energy, they emit carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas that is contributing to global warming. They also emit a variety of conventional pollutants including nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and heavy metals such as mercury. All told, these pollutants pose potentially grave consequences for the environment and public health.
The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was intended to ramp those emissions down and help the nation’s energy sector transition to cleaner, more renewable sources of energy. It established state-by-state, federally mandated targets towards the overall goal of reducing CO2 emissions nationwide by about one-third below 2005 levels by 2030, with a flexible framework for how each state could achieve those targets. While opponents often claimed it would raise consumers’ electricity bills as a result, analysts estimated the rule would actually lead to annual consumer savings of anywhere between $85 to $312 per year.
If implemented, the Clean Power Plan would have put the United States on a path to follow through on its commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement at a time when the world’s leading scientists have affirmed we have until just 2030 to take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” if we are to avoid the most disastrous consequences of global warming. It would also have delivered a variety of co-benefits along the way, saving billions of dollars in costs associated with the environmental and health impacts from burning coal to generate energy. Some 4,500 lives would have been saved every year if the plan had been allowed to move forward.
But with the election of Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency has dramatically reversed course.
“What we got today from this agency was a do-nothing proposal,” Julie McNamara, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Sierra.“It looked at the power sector, and the best that it did was something that could barely nudge the needle at all. When I look at that, I see an agency doing everything it can to create constraints for itself so that it isn’t able to do anything at all. It’s figuring out a way to handcuff itself, to limit its ability to regulate emissions going forward.”
The Affordable Clean Energy rule undoes the carbon-reduction goals of the Clean Power Plan by eliminating its system-wide approach of federally mandated pollution targets. Instead, the new rule gives power plants broad latitude for determining how to regulate carbon emissions, or, whether to do so in the first place. It recommends reductions in emissions, but provides no actual targets for those reductions. It narrowly lists technologies plant operators can use as they see fit for the “best system of emission reduction.”
According to an analysis from Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank, the Affordable Clean Energy rule would lead to a 28 percent increase in CO2 emissions by 2030.
While the watered down rule allows power plants to do nothing about limiting carbon emissions, it also abandons a policy framework for regulating other conventional pollutants those plants emit, such as nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen dioxide contributes to ground level ozone, also known as smog, one of the most widespread air pollutants in the country. Inhaling it can weaken the lungs over time by decreasing the lung’s ability to absorb oxygen, causing permanent lung damage and health problems like asthma.
Conventional pollutants tend to be the most dangerous for people who live near coal-fired power plants, but also for those who live downwind of them or near coal ash ponds. Often these are low-income communities around which those power plants were built. According to the EPA’s own analysis, the Affordable Clean Energy rule would lead to approximately 1,400 more pollution-related deaths per year.
Leaked documents last year made clear who exactly would benefit from scrapping the Clean Power Plan: the coal industry. Bob Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy, the largest independent operator of coal mines in the United States, handed a secret wish list of environmental rollbacks that included the Clean Power Plan to the Trump administration soon after Trump was elected. Murray donated $300,000 to the president’s inauguration. In other leaked documents, the wealthy Koch Seminar Network, which is led by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, took credit for undoing the Clean Power Plan after funneling millions in campaign contributions to the GOP and third-party organizations.
The EPA itself is currently run by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist. Wheeler took over the agency from now-disgraced former administrator Scott Pruitt, who had long taken campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies.
“Trump and Wheeler are pushing a plan that will lead to thousands of deaths while ignoring the public’s demands for aggressive climate action, just so a handful of wealthy coal executives can make a little more money,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “This is an immoral and an illegal attack on clean air, clean energy, and the health of the public, and it shows just how heartless the Trump administration is when it comes to appeasing its polluters allies.”
While the new rule may be a brazen attempt to bolster “indestructible” coal, analysts have long reported that the coal industry is in steep decline. Dozens of coal plants have shuttered since Trump took office. Even before then, many states were already in the process of transitioning away from coal towards cleaner sources of energy. This month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Bank of America, Ceres, Entergy, and Exelon, released a new analysis indicating that the U.S. electric system has steadily moved away from coal toward lower- and zero-emitting sources. According to the report, “This marks a shift away from higher-emitting power sources compared to a decade ago (2006), when coal and natural gas accounted for 49 percent and 20 percent of power production, respectively.”
The Affordable Clean Energy rule will not stop the demise of coal, but it can extend the lifeline of existing coal plants in states lagging behind the trend by not mandating a transition to clean energy. This will allow coal-fired power plants to remain a major source of greenhouse gas emissions at a time when there are record levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Just last month, NOAA announced a reading of 415 ppm of carbon, the most in human history. The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere was approximately 3 million years ago, when sea levels were about 50 to 60 feet higher than they are today and trees grew near the South Pole.
Legal challenges are likely to tie the new rule up in court, possibly for years. A number of attorneys general including from California and New York immediately announced their intent to sue. But even if the rule is never implemented, the legal battle over its fate will result in more federal paralysis in the response to climate change.
“The scientists tell us that we need to slash our CO2 emissions, and we need to start pulling carbon out of the air if we want to prevent catastrophic impacts of climate change,” Gottlieb says. “We’re already suffering the early affects of climate change, and I think people all across the country are now realizing this, whether it’s the dangerous heat waves that can cause deaths from heat stroke, whether it’s the wildfires that we’ve seen—and California is seeing this year—extreme storms, flooding and sea level rise, extended disease ranges for vector-borne diseases. It’s here. It’s now. If we don’t cut carbon emissions, it’s going to get much worse.”
“At the same time, we know that there are concrete and meaningful steps that are available to us as a society to step away from fossil fuels towards energy forms that are clean, that are not poisonous, that are truly renewable, like solar, wind, and geothermal power. That’s where the future lies. In fact, the future has already begun. We have to hurry it up for our health and our survival.”