The Trump administration on Tuesday moved to prop up the declining coal industry with an overhaul of Obama-era pollution rules, acknowledging that the increased emissions from aging coal-fired plants could kill hundreds more people annually and cost the country billions of dollars.
The proposal broadly increases the authority given to states to decide how and how much to regulate coal power plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency said its Affordable Clean Energy rule “empowers states, promotes energy independence and facilitates economic growth and job creation.”
The proposal is likely to have little consequence in Texas, however — except, perhaps, to extend the lives of coal-fired power plants that might otherwise shut down in the face of regulatory hurdles.
A handful of coal-fired power plants have shuttered in Texas over the last year. Power company executives have cited cheap natural gas, subsidies for renewable energy and federal regulations for their decisions.
The Trump proposal supports “viable coal-fired power plants that have a remaining useful life that would have had trouble surviving an unattainable standard,” said Mike Nasi, an Austin attorney with the firm Jackson Walker who represents electricity generators.
Austin got about a quarter of its power from the coal-fired Fayette Power Project in 2016, according to the latest data available.
The plant is operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority. LCRA spokesman Bill Lauderback said the utility is evaluating the Trump proposal and had no further comment.
“I’m glad to see President Trump remains committed to eliminating job-killing Obama regulations that for years were a wet blanket on the Texas economy,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “By rolling back this rule, Texas and other states will now have the freedom to determine a clean energy plan that works best for them.”
‘Coal at all costs’
The proposal dismantles President Barack Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, one of his administration’s legacy efforts against climate change. The Obama rules, which have been halted by court challenges, would have increased federal regulation of emissions from the nation’s electrical grid and broadly promoted cleaner energy, including natural gas and solar and wind power.
Michelle Bloodworth, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a trade group that represents coal producers, called the new rule a marked departure from the “gross overreach” of the Obama administration and said it should prevent a host of premature coal-plant retirements.
But the Natural Resources Defense Council called the Trump’s proposal “Dirty Power Plan.”
Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator when the Obama plan was developed, said the proposed changes show the Trump administration emphasizing “coal at all costs.”
The Trump approach “opens up the door for more smog, more soot and health impacts that go along with that, like more asthma,” said Ilan Levin, an Austin-based attorney with the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project.
The EPA’s 289-page regulatory analysis acknowledged that every possible scenario under its proposal projects “small increases” in climate-changing emissions and some pollutants, compared with the Obama plan.
EPA officials said they could give no firm projections for their plan’s health effects because that will depend on how states regulate power plants within their borders.
But models provided by the agency estimate that under the Trump plan, 300 to 1,500 more people would die prematurely each year by 2030, compared with the Obama plan.
The models for the Trump plan also project tens of thousands of additional major asthma attacks and hundreds more heart attacks compared with the Obama plan.
When health costs from air pollution — soot and smog killing people, increased asthma and heart attacks — are factored in, the repeal of the coal power plan would cost the country $1.4 billion to $3.9 billion annually, according to the agency.
“It shows that removing the Clean Power Plan would be detrimental to health,” said University of North Carolina environmental engineering professor Jason West, who reviewed the agency’s regulatory analysis.
“The cost to society in increases of death and other outcomes from air pollution are greater than the cost to industry from removing the Clean Power Plan,” West said.
‘Back into our lane’
Environmentalists and other opponents said they expect legal challenges, arguing the Trump administration is abdicating its responsibilities under the Clean Air Act as set by Congress and the courts.
Bill Wehrum, head of the EPA’s air office, told reporters that the administration rejects any suggestion the agency has a broad legal duty to combat climate change through regulation of power grids or promotion of cleaner energy.
“An important part of what we’re doing here is getting us back into our lane,” Wehrum said.
The EPA called the Obama-era regulations on coal power plants “overly prescriptive and burdensome.”
Combined with the EPA’s proposal earlier this month to ease gas-mileage requirements for vehicles, the move might increase the country’s climate-changing emissions, according to some former top EPA officials, environmental groups and other opponents.
Tuesday’s move opens a public-comment period on the proposal before any final approval by the president.
Obama’s plan was designed to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The rule dictated specific emission targets for states and gave officials broad latitude to decide how to achieve reductions.
The Supreme Court put the plan on hold in 2016 after a legal challenge by industry and coal-friendly states, an order that remains in effect.
Even so, the Obama plan has been a factor in the wave of retirements of coal-fired plants, which also are being squeezed by lower costs for natural gas and renewable power sources and by state mandates that promote energy conservation.
Trump has vowed to end what Republicans call a “war on coal” waged by Obama.
Includes material from staff writer Asher Price and Associated Press reporters Ellen Knickmeyer and Seth Borenstein