Where Trump’s — and Obama’s — energy plans fall short

Where Trump’s — and Obama’s — energy plans fall short
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE and President Obama’s energy strategies share one thing in common — neither does much to change ongoing trends in coal and emissions. But the two plans differ starkly in their approaches.

A future administration inheriting those precedents would have very different options for jumpstarting our country’s stalled progress on climate. Ironically, the coal executives celebrating Trump’s plan for now may come to regret the precedents it sets.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan was portrayed as ambitious when it was released in 2015. But the never-implemented plan sought only 32 percent emission reductions from 2005 levels by 2030. In fact, emissions have already fallen 28 percent as market forces have allowed more affordable natural gas and renewables to replace coal.

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With or without the Clean Power Plan, Climate Action Tracker rates U.S. progress to be highly insufficient. Doing our share for the Paris Climate Agreement would mean reducing emissions at least 80 percent from 2005 to 2050 overall. Even steeper cuts are needed in the power sector, since it’s easier to control than sources like airplanes, and we’ll need clean electricity to power electric cars and equipment. But without stronger policies than either president has proposed, progress toward clean power is projected to slow as wind and solar tax credits phase down and if natural gas prices rebound.

Revitalizing our Paris pledge will require new policy. In theory, putting a price on carbon would work best. But Congress is unlikely to pass a carbon tax anytime soon. And Congress has for decades failed to update the Clean Air Act to clarify how EPA should address climate change.

So let’s suppose the next president seeks to jumpstart climate action without waiting for Congress. She would need to pursue policies far more ambitious than her predecessors have proposed. Will it matter whether the Obama plan, the Trump plan, or nothing at all gets enacted before then?

In terms of emissions, not much. By 2025, Obama’s plan would cut emissions just 3 percent faster, and Trump’s plan just 1 to 2 percent faster, than the market-driven plunge already underway. But either plan could set a precedent for EPA’s approach under the Clean Air Act.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan set its targets on a state-by-state basis. That would have enabled a range of strategies to boost energy efficiency and clean energy, not just mandates for existing plants. In that sense, Obama’s plan was actually quite conservative, enabling states to serve as laboratories of innovation and markets to drive the most cost-effective solutions.

Unfortunately, a new president inheriting Obama’s plan would have to wait for courts to resolve the legality of state-by-state caps. Even then, meaningful progress would require tightening the Obama-era caps to reflect opportunities unleashed by new technology and falling prices. That would take years of analysis and rule-making, followed by appeals from states opposed to tighter caps.

A new president would face a very different policy landscape under Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy plan. The plan proposed by EPA last week would require each state to set emissions limits on a plant-by-plant basis. Ironically, plant-by-plant mandates have traditionally been deplored by free-market conservatives, who prefer market-based solutions as Obama envisioned.

Trump’s plan encourages states to set very weak emissions requirements, designed to be achieved by minor efficiency upgrades. EPA argues that more effective technologies like carbon capture are too expensive and unproven to be viable for now.

A new administration or even ambitious state agencies could reverse that decision as technologies improve. Earlier this year, Congress enacted far more generous tax credits known as 45Q to subsidize carbon capture. Two power plants in Texas are already piloting alternate technologies to do so.

Under Trump’s plant-by-plant framework, advances in technology could enable future regulators to demand better performance at each plant. By contrast, under Obama’s approach, new technologies would simply make it easier to achieve existing statewide caps.

Even the modest efficiency improvements intended by the Trump plan could expose coal plants to stringent regulation. Roughly 80 percent of existing coal plants don’t meet the minimum air pollution standards required of any new source. In many cases, they emit their sulfur completely unscrubbed, something that hasn’t been allowed at new power plants since the early 1980’s.

Upgrading efficiency would normally trigger what’s known as “new source review,” forcing the plant to meet modern emissions limits. That prevents an upgraded plant from emitting more pollution as it operates more often. But those pollution controls could be far more costly than the efficiency upgrades themselves. Unscrubbed coal plants could be caught in a Catch-22, unable to achieve modest efficiency limits because of the costly controls they would trigger.

To rescue the dirtiest coal plants from that dilemma, Trump’s plan would suspend new source review for efficiency improvements. But many experts question the legality of Trump’s loophole. Without it, modest mandates could become a death sentence for unscrubbed coal plants, and a reprieve for the thousands of Americans who die each year from their pollution.

That could put a future climate-friendly president in an unexpectedly powerful position. By reversing Trump’s new source loophole and redefining what technologies are viable, a new administration could repurpose the Trump framework to quickly shutter unscrubbed coal plants.

In theory, a carbon tax would be more cost-effective. Obama’s plan would be more flexible. But with Congress deadlocked, Obama’s plan mired in court, and so many unscrubbed coal plants clinging to survival, tweaking the Trump plan could offer a future president the quickest route to protecting our health and our climate.

Daniel Cohan is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University.