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Trump administration relaxes emissions limits on power plants

Rule for the US Environmental Protection Agency allows states to set their own limits on carbon-emissions levels.

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A coal-fired Navajo-owned power station in otherwise-unspoilt desert environment

New rule requires US power plants to use energy efficiency technologies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.Credit: Avalon/Universal Images Group/Getty

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized its plan to relax limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, eviscerating one of former president Barack Obama’s flagship climate policies. The new policy, announced on 19 June, sparked exasperation and dismay among climate scientists and environmentalists.

The EPA’s Affordable Clean Energy rule allows states to set their own emissions-reduction goals. It focuses on the use of energy-efficiency technologies at individual power plants rather than requiring the use of more aggressive greenhouse-gas reduction methods such as capturing and storing carbon emissions.

By contrast, Obama’s Clean Power Plan, introduced in 2015, would have set broad goals for each state and required them to work with utility companies to collectively reduce emissions to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. The industry would have had to reduce greenhouse gases by increasing the energy efficiency of power plants and shifting towards using renewables such as wind and solar energy and other low-carbon energy technologies.

“It’s breathtaking, and it’s discouraging,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University in New Jersey, of the EPA’s latest policy. “There’s a lot of evidence that scientific evidence doesn’t matter to this administration at all, and this is further proof of that.”

The replacements

The new rule will almost certainly face lawsuits. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan never took effect — the US Supreme Court put it on hold in February 2016, pending legal challenges from states and businesses, and the EPA began to revise the policy soon after President Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

Rewriting the power-plant rule is the most significant success yet in the administration’s ongoing efforts to roll back a broad set of Obama-era regulations to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

At a 19 June press conference in Washington DC, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said that the Clean Power Plan went well beyond the agency’s legal authority to regulate greenhouse gases. He added that, under the new policy, emissions could fall by 35% of 2005 levels by 2030 without putting undue regulatory requirements on states and industry. The policy “will incentivize new technologies that will ensure coal plants can be part of a cleaner future”, Wheeler said.

But environmentalists decried the finalized rule as a blatant attempt to prop up coal plants. “This is a handout to a select few polluters, borne on the back of the public,” says Julie McNamara, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Declining anyway

The percentage of coal-fired power in the United States has declined sharply over more than a decade, in part because of pollution regulations and competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables. That reduction has helped to decrease emissions from the US electricity industry by 28% from 2005 to 2017, according to the US Energy Information Administration, a federal agency that tracks energy trends.

The EPA’s prediction for emissions reductions under its latest policy “is mostly a result of what the industry has been doing anyway”, says Janet McCabe, who teaches law at Indiana University in Indianapolis. She worked on the Clean Power Plan while at the EPA under Obama.

The Affordable Clean Energy rule narrows the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions to individual facilities, as opposed to the energy industry collectively, which is the view that the Obama administration took. As a result, McCabe says, the new power-plant rule will do “virtually nothing” to reduce emissions.

Preliminary estimates indicate that emissions from the US electricity industry increased last year for the first time in four years, McNamara says. States such as California and New York are moving to cut emissions on their own, but it’s not enough, she says. “We need federal action that points all signals in the same direction.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01944-7

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