Will Trump’s EPA repeal the US carbon emission plan?
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is holding public consultations in West Virginia this week, as it seeks to repeal a Barack Obama-era plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants across the United States.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his intention in October to repeal the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a central pillar in former President Barack Obama’s climate strategy that would have set the first-ever limits on carbon gas emissions from power plants.
Pruitt has argued that getting rid of the plan “could lead to up to $33bn in avoided compliance costs in 2030”.
A spokesman for the EPA told Al Jazeera in an email that those costs “would have been passed down to American families and businesses in the form of increased electricity costs”.
The spokesman added that “any replacement rule that the Trump Administration proposes will be done carefully and properly within the confines of the law”.
The plan to repeal the CPP follows an executive order signed by President Donald Trump last March that ordered the policy be reviewed.
EPA hearings in Charleston, West Virginia, on Tuesday and Wednesday are “an opportunity to hear from the public,” the agency spokesperson said. The EPA will also accept written comments from the public until January 16, 2018.
But environmental rights groups and climate policy experts have warned that repealing the CPP will pull the US off course when it comes to the pressing need to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“We support the Clean Power Plan,” said Bill Price, a senior organiser with the Sierra Club in West Virginia.
“We think the CPP is a path forward for not only healthy communities and the clean-up of coal pollution”, but the policy also has economic benefits and “could provide a space for jobs”, Price told Al Jazeera.
What is the Clean Power Plan?
Passed by the EPA under the Obama administration in 2015, the Clean Power Plan seeks to place “the first-ever limits on carbon emissions from power plants in the United States”, explained Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The aim is to reduce emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.
The CPP requires states to develop individual plans to reach the reduction, including by improving efficiency at their local power plants or pivoting towards the use of renewable energy, among other alternatives, Cleetus told Al Jazeera.
The plan was conceived after several years of consultations with a range of stakeholders, she added, but the first compliance date was 2021.
“States were between now and then supposed to put together compliance plans to help show how they would bring about their reductions in carbon emissions,” Cleetus said.
States that met their reduction targets would have also been able to trade emission credits, similar to the “cap and trade” emission reduction systems being developed and implemented in Europe, in parts of Canada, and in some US states, including California.
What impact would the CPP have had on US climate policy?
Carbon dioxide emissions emanating from the US electric power sector totalled 1,821 million metric tonnes in 2016, accounting for about 35 percent of all energy-related emissions, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Of all the power-sector emissions, 68 percent came from coal, 30 percent were from natural gas, and the remainder were tied to petroleum and other sources.
However carbon emissions in the US energy sector have already begun to decrease as a result of market trends, including a drop in the cost of renewable energy and natural gas and a shift away from coal, Cleetus said.
The US already reached “about 25 percent below 2005 emission levels in the power sector at the end of 2016”, she said.
Protesters interrupted an event organised by the Trump administration at the COP 23 UN Climate Change Conference in Germany this month [Lukas Schulze/Getty Images]
John Larsen, the director of the Rhodium Group and co-author of a recent study on the impact CPP would have had, said that while the CPP was “an important component of the overall US response to climate change … emissions in the power sector are already on track for a pretty deep reduction”.
“The loss of the CPP at least in the near or medium term doesn’t mean any dramatic increase in emissions in the power sector in the United States,” Larsen told Al Jazeera.
According to the study, if states did not trade their carbon emission gains, emission reductions could have exceeded the 32 percent objective and led to a carbon reduction of between 91 to 206 million metric tons a year.
If states did trade their gains, the country would have been on track to reduce as much as 72 million metric tons annually, the study found.
What is the CPP’s legal status?
The US Supreme Court issued a stay on the CPP in 2016, which halted its implementation.
The move came after a request by several states and companies.
Pruitt at the EPA has also instructed states that they do not need to expend resources to comply with the CPP and “have neither been required nor expected to work towards meeting the compliance dates” set by the plan.
The EPA rescinded the existing CPP rule, Larsen explained, meaning that it “is now not the law any more”.
“The EPA is arguing it’s okay to do that because in this adminstration’s view, that rule was not legal because it overstepped the authority granted to the EPA through the Clean Air Act.”
However Cleetus and other critics said the EPA is legally mandated under the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon emissions, which is the goal of the CPP.
Does the CPP have public support?
About 150 groups – including state governments, trade associations and labour unions – challenged the CPP shortly after it was passed in 2015, “highlighting a range of legal and technical concerns”, the EPA stated.
However a majority of people in all US states and congressional districts supported the CPP, according to a 2016 survey published as part of the Yale Climate Opinion Maps.
“Setting strict carbon dioxide emission limits on coal-fired power plants is supported by a majority of the constituents of every U.S. Senator and Representative,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in a statement.
The CPP has a broad base of support in West Virginia, widely known as coal country, according to Price at the Sierra Club, including among faith groups, front-line environmental activists, economic experts and the general public.
Support for a repeal comes largely from coal industry and association officials and the union of mine workers, Price said.
Overall, communities in West Virginia, Illinois and across the Appalachia region “were looking forward to the implementation of the CPP … so that the coal pollution would stop and there would be a clean-up”, he said.
Price said people are realising the economic benefits of moving away from coal and towards more sustainable sources of energy.
“If West Virginia and Appalachia are to come out of [those] … high unemployment and high poverty rates, then we’re going to have to do things differently. And this is a better way forward,” he said.
“Keep the CPP, invest in a transition for the displaced coal miner, and have policies in place that facilitate clean power generation.”
How does the Trump administration justify repealing the CPP?
The EPA has argued the CPP “is not consistent with the Clean Air Act” and a repeal “takes another step to advance President Trump’s America First strategy”.
It has also argued that the Supreme Court stay, issued in 2016, is evidence that the Obama administration “pushed the bounds of their authority” with the CPP.
Meanwhile, Trump campaigned on a promise to repeal the CPP and he has pledged to bring coal-mining jobs back to struggling communities that have traditionally relied on the industry.
|Trump said he plans to bring jobs back to the struggling US mining industry [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]|
But according to Cleetus, “repealing the CPP will not bring back coal” and repealing the CPP is nothing more than “a cynical ploy” on behalf of the Trump administration.
“This is one more way they’re trying to stymie progress on climate change,” she said.
The coal industry will continue to decline whether or not the CPP is repealed due to the current marketplace, Cleetus explained.
What coal miners need is “transition assistance to make sure that they have new job opportunities,” she said.
How would a CPP repeal work?
If the CPP is repealed, the EPA may issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which would involve seeking the public’s imput ahead of the issuance of a policy change or new proposal.
Larsen said this notice would start “the clock back at zero … and basically says, ‘Well, should we regulate CO2 from power plants? Are we legally obligated to? If so, how should we do it?'”
That process can take between six months to a year, after which the EPA will decide whether to issue a new regulation.
The agency would then issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and seek additional comments from the public, a process that could take another year, Larsen said.
What happens if the CPP is repealed?
Cleetus said “there is no doubt” that the EPA will be sued if it repeals the CPP.
In 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide was an “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, and gave the EPA the authority to regulate emissions. That means the EPA has a legal obligation to reduce carbon emissions, said Cleetus.
“The question now is, what will Administrator Pruitt do?” Cleetus said. “There is no doubt that they will be taken to court if a robust alternative is not proposed quickly.”
Larsen agreed, saying he expects New York, California and other states that have taken the lead on tackling emissions, as well as environmental groups, to challenge the EPA in court.
Meanwhile, efforts to move towards more sustainable energy will be ongoing at both the state and local levels, Price said, “regardless of whether the CPP is repealed”.