EPA announces new plan to weaken Obama-era greenhouse gas rule

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Thursday plans to roll back a 2015 rule that put strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions coming from coal plants — a tweak the agency is labeling closer to “reality."

The change will significantly weaken the Obama-era rule in part as an effort to help jump-start new coal plant construction in the U.S. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The proposed revisions to the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) would no longer mandate that plants meet the strict emissions goals of achieving emissions equal to or less than what plants would have achieved with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

The Obama administration at the time saw CCS as a feasible future technology that was important to pulling carbon out of coal plant emissions at their source. Today the technology is not generally used commercially and is pricey.

EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler called the Obama administration's focus on CCS "disingenuous."

"Their determination was disingenuous. They knew the tech was not adequately demonstrated, which is what was required under the law. This rule sets high yet achievable standards rooted in reality," Wheeler said at a press conference at EPA headquarters.

EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum called the old rule “wishful thinking.”

“Today’s actions reflect our approach of defining new, clean coal standards by data and the latest technological information, not wishful thinking,” he said in a statement. “U.S. coal-fired power will be a part of our energy future and our revised standards will ensure that the emissions profiles of new plants continue to improve.”

The new changes would limit coal plant emissions to 1,900 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour produced, a level they say can be met with modern technology including efficient boilers.

The original rule had set the limit at 1,400 pounds.

Despite the higher level of carbon being allowed into the air under EPA's latest change, Wheeler told reporters that their study found it would "not result in significant [carbon dioxide] changes or costs."

When asked whether the new rule means the EPA is ignoring the Trump administration's latest report that declared that effects from climate change would result in unavoidable economic harm to the U.S, Wheeler pushed back.

"We're not ignoring the government report. We're still looking at the government report ourselves. We just got a briefing on it this morning from some of our career scientists," he said.

The report was released two weeks ago.

The EPA chief said the new rule would actually be beneficial to human health because it would provide cheaper electricity to households.

"Having cheap electricity helps human health. If you have cheaper electricity, people are able to afford electricity for their house — that is one aspect of protecting human health," he said, specifically referring to lower income populations.

Wheeler said an important point in the new rule was that the administration would not "pick winners and losers" in the energy sphere — referring to Obama's much maligned "war on coal." Instead, he said he hoped coal use would continue to grow internationally.

"We're rescinding unfair burdens on America's energy providers and leveling the playing field to help keep energy prices affordable and encourage," he said. "Coal use has not peaked worldwide. It continues to expand, primarily in Asia."

The EPA in its press release blamed the Obama rule for discouraging coal use, saying the “revised standard will be based on reality.”

“The previous administration sought to discourage new coal developments by requiring the use of unproven carbon capture and storage technologies that turned out to be economically prohibitive and limited geographically,” the release said.

Thursday's announcement comes as international leaders are meeting in Poland for the COP24 conference. There, country representatives who agreed to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, are working on an official rulebook for the accord. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily says Trump travel ban preventing mother from seeing dying son Saudi Arabia rejects Senate position on Khashoggi killing Five things to know about the Trump inauguration investigation MORE announced last year that he would be pulling the U.S. out of the historical greenhouse gas cutting pact in 2020.

Environmentalists called the rule change an act of climate denial.

"Trump’s proposal is an act of flailing, die-hard climate denial,” said Clare Lakewood, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement Thursday.

“Instead of this backward-looking posturing, the government should speed the transition to a clean energy future.”

The EPA said its new coal emissions rule would still ensure that any future coal plants built in the U.S. use the most advanced, clean technologies.

However, the rollback is not likely to spur many new coal-fired power plants, as the number of coal plant closures continue at a steady pace.

Coal has been in a multiyear decline, due not just to regulations, but also competition from natural gas and renewables.

The federal government this week announced that the United States is on track for the lowest yearly coal consumption in nearly four decades.

Thursday’s move by the Trump administration is the latest in a series of regulatory repeals or rollbacks intended to benefit the coal industry.

One of the biggest of such moves came earlier this year when the EPA proposed to replace the Clean Power Plan, which limited greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, with a weaker alternative that would only reduce emissions by 0.7 percent to 1.5 percent by 2030 when compared with business as usual.

Industry groups reacted positively to the announcement.

“EPA’s new NSPS rule takes a more realistic approach to regulating greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. The previous rule was a de facto ban on new coal-fired power plants, threatening manufacturers’ long-term access to an 'all of the above' energy strategy,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president for energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers.

Updated at 3:09 p.m.