The Trump administration has opened a new front in battles over US climate policy by overhauling rules for power plant emissions to try to help the coal industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule is intended to comply with legal requirements to control carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation while minimising intervention in the industry. The agency published the final version on Wednesday.
States including New York and environmental groups are promising to challenge the new rules in court. The resulting legal battles are likely to drag on into 2021, by which time it is possible there will be a Democratic president who could change policy.
The new rule pushes coal-fired power plants to become more efficient, which could mean they will run more often and for longer, helping support US demand for coal.
Under Donald Trump, the EPA is taking a minimalist view of its requirements under the Clean Air Act to curb carbon dioxide emissions, saying it can impose curbs only on individual plants. The approach of the Obama administration was to address the electricity system as a whole.
A senior EPA official said the previous administration’s approach “would have had the effect of picking which types of generation can operate . . . [and] that goes way beyond the EPA’s authority.”
Conrad Schneider of the Clean Air Task Force said the EPA’s change of approach was driven by Mr Trump’s hopes of reviving the US mining industry, rather than any real attempt to control emissions.
“He’s trying to bring coal back,” said Mr Schneider. “This requires an investment in old, dirty coal plants, so they can run more, so the mining companies can sell more coal.”
Michelle Bloodworth, president of America’s Power, which represents coal producers and companies with coal-fired plants, welcomed the new rule, saying it set “reasonable” standards that would not force coal-fired plants to close. “We commend the EPA for not attempting to use environmental regulations to drive energy policy,” she said.
The ACE rule is intended to replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which was designed to push the US electricity industry away from coal and towards renewable energy and gas. The CPP was never implemented, after the Supreme Court ordered it to be suspended in 2016, and is still tied up in litigation.
In the absence of any clear lead from Washington, US electricity companies have been shifting steadily away from coal, driven by the falling costs of wind and solar power and the availability of cheap gas.
Coal’s share of US electricity generation has dropped from 48 per cent in 2008 to an expected 24 per cent this year, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Over the next 20 years, the EIA expects US coal production to drop even more steeply than in its 2017 forecast of what would happen if the CPP had taken effect.
Mr Trump said he would put American coal miners “back to work”, but the upturn in the industry’s employment has been modest. There were 52,800 people employed in US coal mining last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up 1,800 since Mr Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 but still well down from the 86,200 working in the sector when Barack Obama took office in 2009.
In a sign of the continued pressure to cut costs in the US coal industry, two of the largest mining groups, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, announced on Wednesday that they were combining their assets in Wyoming and Colorado into a joint venture, with the aim of saving $120m a year.
Although a future Democratic president would be expected to reinstate an attempt to cut emissions along the lines of the CPP, court decisions on the ACE rule could mean the administration’s policy influences US policy even after Mr Trump leaves office.
“It’s a long-shot gamble that they can tie the hands of a future EPA,” said Mr Schneider. “They think they preclude a future administration from reintroducing the CPP or something like it.”
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