Coal comeback? Trump plan would breathe new life into aging power plants
President Donald Trump is keeping a signature campaign promise to boost the coal industry but environmentalists say the energy plan his administration is expected to unveil Wednesday would lead to premature deaths and hasten climate change.
Aging coal-fired power plants would get a new lease on life under the industry-friendly proposal known as the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule, under the initial rule unveiled in August.
Presented as a change to the decades-old Clean Air Act, the Trump proposal would replace the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama's signature plan to confront climate change. That plan never took effect after the Supreme Court prevented its implementation in 2015.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler is scheduled to unveil the final rule of the Trump administration during a news conference Wednesday morning.
The preliminary ACE proposal the EPA released in August would give states broad latitude in how they would regulate power plants' greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming as well as other pollutants, such as smog, soot and mercury. At the time, Wheeler called it a plan "that promotes affordable, clean and reliable energy for all Americans."
But by the EPA's own admission, that initial proposal could lead to 1,400 premature deaths by 2030. The revised proposal is expected to contain some slight differences.
Environmental groups and some states already have vowed to sue to stop the plan's implementation, just as opponents of Obama's Clean Power Plan did successfully four years ago.
"Like so many other Trump regulatory rollbacks, these new (ACE) rules will hit the wall in the courts," David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wrote recently. "NRDC, joining forces with state, environmental, and business allies, will challenge the Clean Power Plan repeal and the Dirty Power Plan replacement—and we expect to win."
Even if it survives a court challenge, the Trump proposal is not expected to do much to help an industry that's been buffeted by economic forces, energy analysts say.
Low prices for natural gas, the rising popularity and efficiency of renewable energy such as wind, and customer preferences for clean energy are squeezing coal-fired power plants, they said.
Obama's Clean Power Plan rule was finalized in 2015, mainly targeting coal-fired power plants that account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. But it remains on hold under a Supreme Court stay pending the outcome of a legal challenge from states.
Mandy Gunasekara, who worked on the proposal as a top official in the EPA until leaving the agency in February, said ACE has a better chance of improving air quality than the Clean Power Plan because it's likelier to survive a court challenge.
"For all the fanfare around the CPP it achieved a total number of zero emission reductions due to Supreme Court intervention," said Gunasekara, who runs a non-profit called Energy45 to promote Trump's energy policies. "ACE establishes a cooperative framework whereby the federal government works alongside state government to advance environmental goals. For any honest environmentalist, this (is) something to be celebrated."
n 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rolled back the Obama plan, carrying out a promise by Trump to push an energy agenda that encouraged the use of coal. The president, who has called global warming "a hoax" perpetrated by China to gain a competitive edge, wrote in a tweet last year that "we have ended the war on coal."
Trump has made reviving the coal industry a signature planks of his agenda to "Make America Great Again." Labor Department statistics show that the industry workforce has risen slightly under his administration after hitting a low in 2016, Obama's last year in office.
Despite the proposed rule, the winds of change are working against coal.
Coal-fired plants across the country have been closing regularly over the past decade and dozens more are scheduled to close by 2030. Earlier this month, former New York City Mayor and environmental activist Michael Bloomberg pledged $500 million as part of an effort to shutter every coal-fired power plant in the U.S.
Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental organization, said the Trump rule is misguided not only because it promotes bad policy but because the industry doesn't even want it.
"It contemplates investing more money in old, dirty coal plants," he said. "The one thing they chose to base this rule on is the one thing that no one is doing. Nobody is putting money into old coal plants right now."