WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday said it plans to reverse a rule that would have forced new U.S. coal plants to install technology to capture their carbon dioxide emissions, marking the latest effort by the Trump administration to repeal Obama-era climate regulations.
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said at an afternoon news conference that the Obama administration's rule, which effectively required any new coal plant to have costly carbon capture equipment to meet certain emissions standards, was "disingenuous" because the costs of the technology made new coal plans infeasible.
Wheeler said the Trump administration's proposed policy would have "high yet achievable standards that are rooted in reality," that would result in "leveling the playing field" for all types of fuels.
"You will see a decrease in emissions," Wheeler argued, saying that U.S. investments would lead to new technologies. "By allowing the genius of the private sector to work, we can keep American energy reliable and abundant."
The latest Trump administration environmental rollback, if adopted, likely would have little real-world impact, both industry representatives and environmental activists said.
"There are not going to be any new coal plants built in the U.S., with or without this," said David Doniger, a senior climate and energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, noting that the low price of natural gas in recent years has made coal less economically viable.
Nevertheless, Doniger called the proposal a "head-in-the-sand" attempt to pander to the coal industry for which Wheeler used to lobby, and to ignore ever-growing evidence of the risks of climate change.
"The science is telling us we drastically need to cut back on the emissions from fossil fuel combustion," Doniger said. "Any administration which is looking at reality would not be repealing this requirement, it would be looking at ways to extend it. . . . They are going exactly backwards."
Jeff Holmstead, a partner at the law and energy lobbying firm Bracewell and former head of the EPA's air and radiation office, agreed that undoing what effectively amounted to a ban on new coal plants is "mostly symbolic at this point." Moreover, Holmstead said, there has never been an application for modifying or reconstructing a plant under the section of the Clean Air Act the rule is based upon.
The National Mining Association, however, said that building new more efficient coal plants could reduce the nation's overall carbon dioxide emissions. "Improving the average efficiency rate of coal-fired power plants from 33 percent to 40 percent by using the advanced high efficiency, low emissions technology that exists could cut U.S. coal-plant emissions by up to 21 percent," said Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the trade association.
Building new coal plants would be expensive, however. Burke said companies would need subsidies in the form of tax incentives and loan guarantees. Sen. Todd C. Young, R-Ind., last month proposed legislation that would provide loan guarantees and other incentives for the construction of new coal plants.
But advocates of renewable energy say that the sort of drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions needed to slow global warming would come only with the continued closing of coal plants and replacing them with wind, solar or geothermal facilities.
"This proposal is another illegal attempt by the Trump administration to prop up an industry already buckling under the powerful force of the free market," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in a statement. Whitehouse, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said "if the president cared about coal miners, he would start working on ways to help the industry's workforce adjust to the new economic reality and begin investing in their future."
A panel of U.N. scientists said in a recent report that coal and gas plants still operating need to be equipped with carbon-capture technologies to achieve the reduction in carbon emissions necessary for keeping the world under 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming past preindustrial levels.
"This is just one more step this administration is taking that shows a pretty complete disregard for public health and the health of the planet, in favor of what appears here to be a pretty elusive goal," said Janet McCabe, who served as acting assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation during the Obama administration and helped shape the existing rule.
McCabe called the emissions standards set during her watch "appropriate," and said the Trump administration will likely have to defend in court its reasons for easing them.
"Sending a signal of minimal ambition, if any, is the wrong direction to go when we've just been told by the National Climate Assessment that things are pretty dire," she said, calling it the latest signal of the administration's disregard for climate-related risks. "They've been giving nothing but this signal with rule after rule after rule."
The Energy Information Administration said this week that U.S. coal consumption had fallen to a 40-year low. The agency said that the use of coal by the U.S. power sector will drop by 4 percent, or 691 million short tons, during 2018.
Power generators in the United States will close down coal-fired power plants with 14.3 gigawatts of capacity this year, more than twice the 7.0 gigawatts of capacity retired in 2017, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Another 22.9 gigawatts of coal plants are already scheduled for shutdown by 2024.