By Jennifer A. Dlouhy
The Environmental Protection Agency is set to unveil its rewrite of the Clean Power Plan as soon as Wednesday, finalizing a replacement rule that would establish pollution guidelines based on potential gains from efficiency upgrades at individual facilities.
Like a proposal released last October, the EPA’s final rule gives U.S. states wide latitude to design their own plans for paring carbon dioxide emissions at power plants, according to people familiar with the measure who asked not to be named before it was released.
The effort fulfills President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to rip up the Clean Power Plan and dovetails with his administration’s retreat from a global fight against climate change. Trump announced in June 2017 that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris climate accord, a global carbon-cutting agreement reached in 2015, and the EPA is now unwinding Obama-era regulations targeting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, automobiles and oil wells.
Yet the latest decision — which faces an inevitable legal challenge — prolongs uncertainty for electric utilities and power generators that are already eschewing coal-fired power and embracing cleaner natural gas and renewables.
Trump’s approach is significantly less ambitious than the Obama administration’s rule by relying on a narrow view of the “best system of emission reduction” at coal-fired power plants, said Janet McCabe, the EPA’s former acting administrator for air quality.
“It constrains it only to the things that power plants can do within their fence line,” McCabe said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has said the agency’s planned power plant changes empower states to pare emissions while ensuring Americans have access to reliable and affordable energy.
Environmentalists have already vowed to battle the replacement rule in federal court — setting up potential legal wrangling that could last years. Already, court action prevented Obama’s Clean Power Plan from going into effect. The Supreme Court put off the initiative in February 2016, amid legal challenges from opponents who said the EPA had overstepped its authority.
At the time it was imposed, the Clean Power Plan was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 32% from 2005 levels by 2030.
In a change from its earlier proposal, the EPA will not simultaneously finalize provisions authorizing companies to upgrade old power plants without triggering requirements for costly pollution control systems, said the people. That change is expected to come later, as the EPA works to overhaul its so-called New Source Review program governing pollution controls at power plants and industrial facilities.
Those permitting changes were needed to drive more aggressive efficiency improvements at individual power plants, the EPA argued in its proposal. Stripping those provisions out could help justify weaker requirements for bolstering efficiency.
The EPA’s power plant rule is set to mark a shift in how the agency credits potential health gains tied to cleaning up air pollution — specifically fine particulate matter, or soot.
Last year, the EPA predicted its initial proposal would mean an uptick in particulate matter pollution — and the asthma attacks, respiratory diseases and premature deaths tied to it. There could be a range of 470 to 1,400 additional premature deaths in 2030 under even the most stringent proposed power plant improvements, the EPA predicted. Hospital admissions and emergency room visits for asthma would also climb.
But the EPA is expected to discount the potential effects of its final rule by comparing its impacts against a baseline scenario without the Clean Power Plan in place.
The agency also is set to highlight questions about the health benefits tied to low levels of soot. Administration officials debated the merits of that approach in 2017, as they moved to repeal the Clean Power Plan.
In an October 2017 email exchange released as part of a federal rulemaking docket, an EPA official said the agency could choose to discount some health benefits of paring soot by asserting it was the administration’s policy to acknowledge uncertainties about the impacts.
That would have the benefit of being a “policy” and not “a purely scientific call” that would require addressing recent scientific studies, EPA lead economist Al McGartland said in a September 2017 message.