NJ Challenges Weaker Rule on Emissions from Coal-Fired Power Plants

Tom Johnson | August 14, 2019 | Energy & Environment
A new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency would let coal units slide on pollution controls. New Jersey is among 22 state challenging the rule as unlawful

coal-burning plant
New Jersey joined with 21 other states, along with several cities, in challenging a new rule adopted by the Trump administration to weaken federal emissions standards governing global warming pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted a rule to overturn a signature environmental achievement of the Obama administration in its efforts to combat climate change.

In a petition filed yesterday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the states challenged the action, dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy rule, as unlawful, saying it would allow coal units to operate indefinitely into the future without installing pollution controls to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The power industry is the second biggest source of global-warming pollution behind only the transportation sector. New Jersey no longer has any big coal-fired power plants, but still suffers from wind-blown pollution from units operating in other states.

“At a time when experts call on us to combat the threat of climate change, Washington refuses to hold the biggest polluters accountable,’’ said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “Not only is that bad policy, but it’s wrong on the law.’’

Giving power plants ‘a blank check’

Under the law, the EPA is required to make sure power plants use the best technology to reduce their emissions, according to Grewal. The Obama rule encouraged generators to switch to cleaner sources of power, like renewables and natural gas. The new EPA rule promotes new efficiency measures for plants but allows for greater greenhouse-gas emissions than were allowed under the Obama plan.

“This rule instead gives power plants and the coal industry a blank check to keep putting our environment and health at risk,’’ Grewal said. By the EPA’s own projections, the new rule could cause as many as 1,400 premature deaths per year compared to the Obama regulation.

The new rule has been opposed by the Murphy administration ever since the Trump administration proposed to scrap the Obama EPA’s Clean Power Plan. That rule was challenged by former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, a decision reversed by Grewal shortly after taking office as attorney general.

“When the federal government tries to drag us backward, New Jersey and other states must step forward,’’ said state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe, who along with other New Jersey officials submitted comments opposing the new rule.

A string of lawsuits

The issue is likely to end up before the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court, in an unusual move, blocked the Obama Clean Power Plan from being implemented to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. The Trump rule is already being challenged in court by some, including the Sierra Club, which contested the legality of the adoption of the rule.

“The rule will make our air quality even worse,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “One-third of our pollution comes from out of state, so New Jersey will get hit hard.’’

The latest litigation continues a string of lawsuits the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy has joined, to fight what they view as attempted rollbacks of environmental laws, particularly dealing with climate change. New Jersey has challenged efforts to weaken fuel efficiency standards from vehicles, prevent the federal government to do seismic testing in the Atlantic Ocean for drilling, and successfully blocked a proposal to allow more so-called super-polluting trucks on highways.