EPA to weaken emissions standards for new coal plants despite growing urgency of climate crisis
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a proposal on Thursday that will weaken protections against greenhouse gas emissions from new electric power plants.
The proposed rule is the latest in a long list of Trump administration policy initiatives meant to prop up the struggling coal industry. Yet, the rule’s own analysis admits that it does not expect any new coal plants to be constructed as a result of its changes.
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, speaking Thursday at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., said the proposal would loosen what he described as “unfair burdens” on developers of coal-fired power plants and clean coal technologies.
Among the high-profile coal industry supporters invited to the event were the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell, a climate denier who led Trump’s EPA’s transition team, and Steve Milloy, a coal industry lobbyist with close ties to Wheeler and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
— Count on Coal (@countoncoal) December 6, 2018
The unveiling of the new rule demonstrated that the EPA, even without Pruitt leading the charge, is still working hard to weaken important climate and environmental rules.
The planned rollback follows an EPA proposal released earlier this year to replace the Clean Power Plan, which limited greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, with a weaker alternative called the Affordable Clean Energy rule.
The latest plan to relax greenhouse gas emissions rules for new coal-fired plants comes in the wake of this autumn’s release of two major climate reports — one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the other by 13 agencies of the U.S. government agencies — that highlighted the dire consequences for the world if urgent action is not taken to reduce emissions in the next 12 years.
When asked how the proposed rule for new coal-fired power plants helps protect human heath and the environment, Wheeler inaccurately argued that coal is the cheapest form of electricity.
“Having affordable electricity helps human health,” he said. “If you have cheaper forms of electricity, people are able to afford electricity for their houses — the winter to heat, the summer to cool — and that is one aspect of protecting human health.”
Recent studies, however, have shown that the prices for solar, wind, and battery storage are dropping so rapidly that renewables are increasingly squeezing out all forms of fossil fuel power, including natural gas. And coal consumption in the country has dropped to its lowest rate in nearly 40 years, largely due to the economics of expensive coal and cheaper alternatives.
In August 2015, the Obama EPA set standards to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new, modified, and reconstructed power plants. A new source was defined as any newly constructed fossil fuel‐fired power plant that began construction after January 8, 2014.
The Trump EPA’s new proposal would raise the power plant emissions limit from 1,400 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of output to 1,900 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, a rate achievable by a using type of coal-burning technology already in usage known as “ultra-supercritical.”
Wheeler would not comment on whether he believes the new rule will spur the construction of new coal-fired power plants. The proposed rule itself acknowledges that “power sector modeling does not predict the construction of any new coal-fired [plants]” if the relaxed emissions standards are implemented.
Therefore, based on the modeling of potential impacts, the proposal “would have no significant costs or benefits,” the proposed rule says.
The EPA invited supporters of President Donald Trump’s pro-coal agenda to make remarks at the event. Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said the proposed rule will remove “barriers that certainly stifled much of the research and investment needed to support the next generation of coal plant technologies.”
In contrast to the projections of most energy experts and the proposed rule itself, Bloodworth said she expects the rule change “will make it feasible for new coal plants to be a viable option” in the United States.
The coal industry began losing its grip on the U.S. power generation sector earlier this decade as cheaper natural gas and the wind and solar energy became more economically viable options. In April 2015, the portion of electricity generation from natural gas surpassed generation from coal in the United States for the first time ever, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“No number of regulatory rollbacks or empty campaign promises to coal miners is going to change the move toward clean energy,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.
Investor pressure about climate change, growing public support for renewables, and the continued declining costs of wind and solar are big reasons why coal is being pushed out of the market, Cook explained Wednesday in a statement.
Other environmental groups also questioned why the Trump administration is still doing favors for the coal industry when electric utilities are making plans to move away from coal and all fossil fuels to generate electricity.
Xcel Energy, one of the largest electric utilities in the nation, for instance, announced this week it will go carbon-free by 2050. This demonstrates that committing to greenhouse gas emissions reductions is feasible and good for business, Lila Holzman, energy program manager of As You Sow, an environmental and corporate responsibility advocacy group, said Thursday in a statement.
Despite these major plans by the private sector, “our government is irrationally increasing the likelihood of catastrophic climate change by attempting to prop up an unacceptably risky industry,” Holzman said in response to the EPA’s release of the proposal.
The Obama rule in effect required developers of new coal-fired power plants to include systems to capture the carbon dioxide they produced, a technology that is still not in use on a commercial scale. Carbon capture systems are designed capture carbon dioxide emissions and store the CO2 underground.
On a global basis, coal is expected to remain prominent in various nations’ energy portfolios. Rising consumption in India and other developing economies is expected to offset reduced usage in the United States and China.
“The expected persistence of substantial global coal consumption through 2040 and beyond is consistent with the pattern from earlier transitions and poses a major challenge for climate policy,” Reuters energy markets analyst John Kemp wrote in a column published Thursday.
One of Wheeler’s primary arguments in favor of weakening the emissions standards for new coal plants was the impact the move would have on emissions in other countries through the development of cleaner-burning technologies. The new rule will allow “U.S. ingenuity to develop new technologies that can be exported to other countries so that other countries have cleaner-burning coal-fired power plants,” he said.
Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, also was on hand to support the proposed rule. Alford argued that the Obama administration’s efforts to cut carbon emissions had negative impacts on low-income communities and minority-owned businesses by increasing costs.
Living near coal plants, even ones with air pollution control technologies, however, can still cause negative health impacts to the local population. And these polluting plants are disproportionately located in low-income areas and communities of color.
Wheeler will announce this rollback alongside Harry Alford of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Don’t be fooled into thinking he represents African-Americans. The NBCC is a front group funded by fossil fuel interests, and it does their bidding: https://t.co/a5eX0sEdy6 https://t.co/nhaqXCPl2p
— Lisa Hymas (@lisahymas) December 5, 2018
The National Black Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1993, describes itself as a non-partisan organization “dedicated to the economic empowerment of African Americans.” The organization has received funding from fossil fuel interests and other corporate sources, including ExxonMobil and Koch Industries.
“Don’t be fooled into thinking he represents African-Americans,” Lisa Hymas, director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America, tweeted Wednesday. “The NBCC is a front group funded by fossil fuel interests, and it does their bidding.”