The Future of the Clean Power Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month delivered on President Trump’s promise to attempt to repeal the Clean Power Plan (CPP), federal standards that would have been one of America’s single strongest actions to combat climate change.

This was little surprise, as any conservative administration would have sought to upend this signature accomplishment of the prior administration. Now that words are becoming action, it may be helpful to discuss what the CPP would entail, where it’s at, and what could be next.

Coal-fired power plant in Minnesota

The CPP was part of a portfolio of federal rules that would limit carbon pollution at power plants, incentivize renewable energy, and give states latitude in both of these areas to reduce power sector carbon pollution 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It was also underpinned by landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that grant greenhouse gases coverage under the Clean Air Act.

These standards would have been a key part of meeting the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement — which the administration also promised to scuttle in June. Despite their initial opposition, Nicaragua as well as Syria have recently abided by the agreement, leaving the United States as the sole outlier.

However, while the CPP was finalized in 2015, it was yet to take effect. Twenty-eight states sued the EPA soon after the final rule, and in 2016, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked it from taking effect while lower courts hear arguments.

The current administration’s claim, aligning with some of these arguments, is that CPP stretches the Clean Air Act beyond its authority, and it rejects evidence that measures to combat climate change would benefit peoples’ health or the economy.

Unlike legislation — such as the Affordable Care Act — federal rules cannot simply be repealed without a replacement. In order to reverse CPP, the administration would be compelled to present an alternative that abides the lawful definition of greenhouse gas as a pollutant requiring regulation — an alternative that would need to endure lengthy technical review, public comment, and the inevitable lawsuits that would follow. Bear in mind it took the Obama Administration nearly two terms to enact the CPP, and (not surprisingly) the current administration has yet to present an alternative, much less a timeline.

All this means is that instead of a measure of regulatory certainty for the power sector — which lends itself to lower, steady energy costs given the capital intensity of energy development — the path forward on climate and clean energy progress will remain in limbo, and the current administration will continue insincere efforts to restore coal to its former glory.

But the alleged ‘war on coal’ is already lost. The nation’s energy sector has transformed over the past decade, catapulting the United States to the world’s leading producer of cheap natural gas. This economic factor settled coal’s fate long before the Clean Power Plan was ever enacted, and in many ways, cheap (and lower carbon) natural gas buttressed the modest greenhouse gas reduction goals the CPP put forth.

Unfortunately, this is not the line being sold to coal workers, who reportedly are rejecting opportunities to retrain based on an empty promise.

If there were a silver lining to this story, it is that many states and industries are charging ahead on their own. California’s state mandate is to reach 40 percent reductions below 1990 levels by 2030, and to meet this, one of its largest utilities, Southern California Edison, recently stated it is ahead of its goal to have 50 percent renewable generation by 2030.

These and the efforts of other states, along with the continuing shift to natural gas and other lower carbon technologies, may get the United States to meet the goals set in CPP even without the rule in place.

Towns from Vermont to Texas are getting to 100 percent renewable, and many countries — including China — are ramping up their carbon reduction goals, not scaling them back.

At best, dismantling the CPP is a missed opportunity to be a world leader in renewable technology, and to achieve and potentially surpass carbon reductions that would have otherwise been the case under CPP.

At worst, continuing in this direction — aimless on the way to backward — could have real impacts to the U.S. economy in the long run. In addition to reducing carbon in power production, many countries — including the United Kingdom, France, Norway, China — have set targets to eliminate fossil fuel cars over the next few decades. And so what good is cheap, dirty power to a U.S. car factory that can’t sell overseas? What good is massive capital deployment to fossil fuels, when the rest of the world has gotten cheaper renewables to scale?

It’s unclear that the world can check its carbon balance before climate change becomes irreversible and drastic. But despite that uncertainty, much of America and the world have set sail on a cleaner energy course.

The efforts to reverse the CPP are akin to a person jumping off that boat, in a doomed attempt to swim back to shore.

Rob McCulloch is an Air Force veteran and works in the renewable fuels industry. He is a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and Operation Free Advocate. Views expressed are his own.

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