Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told coal miners in Kentucky on Monday that he will move to repeal a rule limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants, assuring them, “The war against coal is over.”
Speaking at an event in Hazard, Ky., with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Pruitt said his agency will publish the new proposed rule Tuesday.
“Tomorrow, in Washington, D.C., I’ll be a signing a proposed rule to withdraw the so-called Clean Power Plan of the past administration, and thus begin the effort to withdraw that rule,” Pruitt said.
The 43-page proposal, which was obtained by The Washington Post and other news outlets last week, argues that the agency overstepped its legal authority in seeking to force utilities to reduce carbon emissions outside their actual facilities to meet federal emissions targets. It does not offer a replacement plan for regulating emissions of carbon dioxide, which the Supreme Court has ruled that the EPA is obligated to do. Rather, the agency said it plans to seek public input on how best to cut emissions from natural-gas and coal-fired power plants.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an interview Monday that Pruitt chose to speak about his plans in Kentucky because coal workers have a direct economic stake in policies aimed at curbing emissions from coal burning.
“He’s speaking directly to people in coal county about how the rule negatively affected the whole industry,” Bowman said.
Reaction to the announcement was divided sharply along ideological lines, with environmental and public health advocates decrying it, and industry groups welcoming the move.
“With this news, Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt will go down in infamy for launching one of the most egregious attacks ever on public health, our climate, and the safety of every community in the United States,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “He’s proposing to throw out a plan that would prevent thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of childhood asthma attacks every year.”
But National Rural Electric Cooperative Association chief executive Jim Matheson, one of the utility groups that challenged the Obama-era rule, said rescinding it would provide his members with the flexibility to use their existing plants to provide “reliable, affordable power” to local customers.
“That’s what we’re really looking for, is flexibility so they can meet their individual consumers’ needs,” Matheson said in an interview Monday.
He added that many of his rural co-ops had “made a lot of investments” in pollution controls on coal-fired plant to comply with earlier federal regulations, and that shutting them down altogether would burden them with debt that they would have to pass on to their customers as higher electricity rates.
“We’re looking for some durability over time” in terms of federal regulation, Matheson said. “Certainty and durability is a value to all of us in this industry.”
Even some critics of the rule said Monday that they were open to a more limited regulation aimed at addressing carbon emissions from power plants.
Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement that his group “agrees with the EPA’s conclusion that this regulation was broader than what the law allows, which is why we joined 28 states in challenging it in federal court.”
“At the same time, we recognize the need for a policy to address greenhouse gas emissions,” Eisenberg added. “The NAM supports a greenhouse gas policy going forward that is narrowly tailored and consistent with the Clean Air Act.”
On Thursday, Bowman said that any replacement rule the agency does put forward would be “done carefully and properly, within the confines of the law.”
But arguments over the confines of the law are at heart of the long-running fight over the Clean Power Plan.
During his time in Oklahoma, Pruitt and other critics sued over the regulation, arguing that the Obama administration did not have legal authority to force states to form detailed plans to reduce CO2 emissions from such sources as coal-fired power plants. In particular, opponents argued that the regulations required power plants to take actions “outside the fence line,” rather than regulating activities that only take place on a particular facility. In addition, he argued that the Clean Power Plan set emissions limits that could be met only by unfairly subsidizing the creation of massive new amounts of wind and solar energy, while limiting consumption of coal- and gas-powered electricity.
Environmental groups and other supporters argued on the side of the Obama White House, saying the administration had standing under the Clean Air Act to put in place the effort, which they called a much-needed measure to help nudge the nation toward cleaner sources of energy and improve public health. Representatives of the oil and gas industry and other opponents argue that the EPA’s regulations would unfairly force power-plant owners to shut down or essentially subsidize competing clean-energy industries.
From the start, the effort has faced legal action from all sides.
The central case in that fight, West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, has had an unusual legal path. Early last year, the Supreme Court blocked the regulation’s implementation after 27 states and a host of other opponents challenged its legality. Its 5 to 4 decision, which did not address the merits of the lawsuit, came just days before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
With the Clean Power Plan’s future on the line, a 10-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in September 2016 held a marathon day of oral arguments on the case, trying to decipher whether the Obama administration’s proposal went too far in trying to compel power plants to cut carbon-dioxide emissions.
But that court did not issue a ruling before the Trump administration took office and requested time to reconsider the Clean Power Plan’s future.
The EPA’s latest proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan comes months after President Trump issued a directive instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting the controversial 2015 regulation, as part of a broader effort to obliterate his predecessor’s efforts to make combating climate change a top government priority.
A central piece of Obama’s environmental legacy, the Clean Power Plan aims to slash the greenhouse-gas emissions that scientists agree are fueling the planet’s rapid warming. It also was an integral part of the commitment U.S. officials made as part of a historic international climate accord signed in late 2015 in Paris, from which Trump has said he intends to withdraw.
The revocation of rule is sure to draw a legal challenge from the existing rule’s proponents. In a statement Monday, former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, who shepherded the rule during Obama’s second term, said in a statement that a proposal to repeal it “without any timeline or even a commitment to propose a rule to reduce carbon pollution, isn’t a step forward, it’s a wholesale retreat from EPA’s legal, scientific and moral obligation to address the threats of climate change.”
“The Supreme Court has concluded multiple times that EPA is obligated by law to move forward with action to regulate greenhouse gases, but this administration has no intention of following the law,” McCarthy said.
Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who worked on climate policy for Obama, said in an interview Friday that the EPA had deliberately downplayed the benefits of curbing carbon to justify revoking the power-plant regulation.
“It does not feel like an effort to refresh the cost-benefit analysis to make sure it’s on the frontiers of science,” Greenstone said about the leaked proposal. “It seems like an effort to find the levers that will make the cost go down.”
Chris Mooney contributed to this report.