Explainer: Trump Repeals Obama Clean Power Plan, Offers Slacker Alternative

A 60-day window is open for challenges to EPA’s adoption of new rule concerning emissions from coal-fired plants; challenges to the new regulation are expected

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The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday formally adopted a new rule repealing the signature environmental achievement of the Obama administration and a key component of its efforts to combat climate change. The agency put in place a new regulation that allows states to decide how to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, a major contributor to global climate change.

The new regulation, dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy rule, was published in the Federal Register yesterday, setting off a 60-day clock to challenge it. The issue, already highly litigated, is sure to be contested by a bevy of environmental organizations, and states, including California, New York, and very likely New Jersey.

The issue revolves around reducing carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, a major source of climate change pollution. In a much narrower interpretation of the agency’s authority to regulate carbon pollution than the previous administration, the rule allows states to curb emissions solely based on the individual plant’s ability to achieve reductions through efficiency improvements.

The adoption of the new rule came on a day when President Donald Trump touted his environmental record, policies that have been widely criticized by environmentalists as weakening many of the nation’s most important protections governing air and water quality, and preservation of public lands.

What the new rule does: The distinction set by the Trump administration in the new rule is significant in its much more limited view on how the EPA can curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, plants could pursue efficiency upgrades to reduce pollution, but also were recommended to switch to cleaner sources of generation, like natural gas and renewable energy.

What it means for air quality: It’s bad news, according to environmentalists, and by the agency’s own projections. The new rule could cause as much as 1,400 premature deaths per year, according to the EPA’s initial projections of scrapping the Obama regulation. The deaths are linked to increased pollution from soot-based particulates.

Why it is important for New Jersey: The state no longer has any remaining big coal-fired plants, the last two units closing in 2017. But New Jersey still has never met the federal health air-quality standard for ground-level ozone, or smog. Despite having stringent air pollution standards for its in-state generating plants, much of the pollution is blown into New Jersey from states to the west, where coal-fired plants produce much of the electricity.

What happens if courts uphold the new EPA plan: If upheld by the courts, it could constrict the ability of future administrations to reduce regulatory actions to deal with climate change. It could tie the hands of future administrations to deal with pollution from power plants by severely restricting their ability to act.

Why it may not matter that much: The energy sector is undergoing a rapid transformation, driven more by market forces than by regulatory policies. Historically low natural-gas prices have posed severe economic challenges for coal plants, and, to a lesser degree, nuclear units. Increasingly competitive wind power and solar energy are crowding out traditional coal plants.

What happens next: Expect a protracted court battle. The Sierra Club already is in court contesting the new rule adopted by the agency, arguing the process was illegal. Fourteen states, including New Jersey, filed a letter to the EPA, opposing the new rule. They are expected to follow up with lawsuits against the agency. The issue likely will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which prevented the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan from taking effect.