energy

Steam rises from cooling towers at the American Electric Power Co. coal-fired power plant in Winfield, W.Va., on July 18.

President Donald Trump plans this week to unveil a proposal that would empower states to establish emission standards for coal-fired power plants rather than speeding their retirement — a major overhaul of the Obama administration’s signature climate policy and one that could significantly increase the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Trump plans to announce the measure as soon as Tuesday during a visit to West Virginia, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s analysis, which runs nearly 300 pages, projects the proposal would make only slight cuts to overall emissions of pollutants — including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — over the next decade. The Obama rule, by contrast, dwarfs those cuts by a factor of more than 12.

The new proposal, which will be subject to a 60-day comment period, could have enormous implications for dozens of aging coal-fired power plants across the country. EPA estimates the measure will affect more than 300 U.S. plants, providing companies with an incentive to keep coal plants in operation rather than replacing them with cleaner natural gas or renewable energy projects.

By 2030, administration officials say, their proposal would cut CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by between 0.7 percent and 1.5 percent. Those reductions are equivalent to taking anywhere from 2.7 million to 5.3 million cars off the road.

By comparison, the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan would have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by roughly 19 percent during that same time frame. That is equivalent to taking 75 million cars out of circulation and preventing more than 365 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

Under the EPA’s new plan, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that help form smog would be cut between 1 and 2 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. Under Obama, the agency projected its policy would reduce those pollutants by 24 percent and 22 percent, respectively, by the end of the next decade.

EPA did not respond to a request for comment, and the White House said it was looking into the matter.

As the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, the United States has targeted the burning of fossil fuels that is driving climate change. The power sector ranks as the second-biggest contributor to overall greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA, accounting for 28.4 percent of the total in 2016. Transportation made up 28.5 percent that year.

While EPA projects that the U.S. power sector’s overall carbon output will decline over time due to market pressures and other factors after the new rule takes effect, the policy shift would make it increasingly difficult for America to meet the international climate goals it adopted under the previous administration.

Joseph Goffman, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program and an architect of the Obama-era rule, said in a phone interview that the higher emissions that would result from the Trump proposal would damage the climate as well as public health.

“These numbers tell the story, that they really remain committed not to do anything to address greenhouse gas emissions,” said Goffman, who served as associate assistant administrator for climate in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation between 2009 and 2017. “They show not merely indifference to climate change, but really, opposition to doing anything about climate change.”

Utility companies, which had joined states in suing to block the Obama climate rule, would save annual compliance costs for the industry by about $400 million a year.

Many utilities have moved to retire coal plants in recent years and switch to either natural gas or renewable power, which are now more economically competitive. But the proposed rule, which focuses on improving their heat efficiency and would allow for upgrades without triggering the pollution controls currently required under federal law, could shift that dynamic.

Since the outset of the administration, officials have said they intended to replace the Clean Power Plan because EPA exceeded its legal authority in crafting the policy. The rule, which has been stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court, established a program under which states could achieve emissions reductions by having utilities promote energy efficiency or build renewable power projects.

“We’re going back to the agency’s historical interpretation and application of its authority” under the Clean Air Act, said one official in an interview. “That is respectful of the boundaries established by Congress.”

Utility industry executives hailed the administration’s proposal as one that adheres to the law and would ease the financial crunch they would have faced under a more sweeping rule. Jim Matheson, chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said Saturday that it appears the measure will “provide electric co-ops the certainty and flexibility they need to meet their consumer-members’ energy needs.”

Matheson’s members get 41 percent of their energy from coal-fired generation.

The proposed rule has a 200-page preamble laying out EPA’s reasoning for the sweeping changes.

Rather than identifying specific reduction targets and then tasking state officials with devising plans to achieve them, it will define what constitutes the “best system of emission reduction” that utilities can undertake with technology that has been demonstrated to work. States will conduct a unit-by-unit analysis of plants in their state and will have three years to develop a plan to make their operations more efficient.

EPA will have one year to determine whether to approve a state’s plan, and if it does not meet agency guidelines the EPA will have another year to impose a plan on the state.

As a result, it is difficult to determine exactly when the new measure will be fully implemented.

Trump announced more than a year ago that the United States would pull out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, under which America pledged to cut its overall carbon output between 26 percent and 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels.

While the country’s greenhouse gas emissions continues to decline, scientists say the United States cannot meet its Paris climate goal without policies such as the Clean Power Plan.

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