EPA unveils weaker alternative to Obama power plant rule

(Reuters) – The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed replacing a signature Obama-era policy to combat climate change with a weaker plan that would let states write their own rules on coal-fired power plants, prompting critics to warn of dire environmental and health consequences.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal would require states to submit plans for improving efficiency of coal-fired power plants. The federal government will set carbon emission guidelines, but states will have the leeway to set less-stringent standards, taking into account a facility’s age and the cost of upgrades.

The rule also could allow power plant owners to sidestep costly permits for those improvements.

“The era of top down, one-size-fits-all federal mandates is over,” EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said on a conference call.

The administration’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule is limited in its scope to coal-fired plants. The Obama-era plan, which has been put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, set overall carbon-reduction goals for each state using a series of different measures.

The attorneys general of Virginia and New York quickly criticized the EPA announcement and said they would sue to block the rule if it becomes law.

“I am ready to take every action necessary to halt the adoption of this dangerous and woefully insufficient replacement of the Clean Power Plan,” said Virginia AG Mark Herring.

The EPA estimated carbon dioxide emissions would be higher under the proposed policy than under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), according to documents released Tuesday. They also showed pollution-related premature deaths, hospital admissions, asthma cases and school absence days could be higher by 2030 than under the Obama-era plan.

EPA’s 236-page proposal is open for a public comment period, with a final rule expected later this year.

The effort to re-write the plan is the latest move by Trump administration to roll back environmental rules put in place by Obama.

Trump, who has scheduled a rally on Tuesday in coal-producing state West Virginia, has vowed to end what he termed “the war on coal” and boost domestic fossil fuels production.

Environmental groups said his plan’s focus on improving efficiency of coal-fired generators could end up raising overall carbon emissions.

“A coal plant that operates more efficiently may be called upon to run more hours, increasing the total amount of CO2 emitted overall,” Lissa Lynch, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

The CPP, which Obama’s EPA finalized in 2015, sought to reduce emissions from power plants to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The Supreme Court put the brakes on it in 2016 after energy-producing states sued the EPA, saying it had exceeded its legal reach.

In many states, the CPP’s limits on emissions have already been met because the cost of generating power from natural gas and renewable energy like wind and solar is cheaper than coal.

An EPA study of various scenarios forecast that compliance costs relative to the CPP would be slightly lower or higher depending on the assumed cost of making efficiency improvements to the coal-fired plants. That is because the electricity sector has already become far less carbon intensive in recent years.

“As such, achieving the emissions levels required under CPP requires less effort and expense,” EPA said in the report.

FILE PHOTO: An empty podium awaits the arrival of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to address staff at EPA headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ting Shen/File Photo

Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Susan Thomas and David Gregorio

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