Following a campaign promise, the Trump administration has announced that it will eliminate one of the Obama administration’s landmark pieces of climate change legislation. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he wishes to rescind the Clean Power Plan (CPP) as quickly as possible.
This follows the announcement that Energy Secretary Rick Perry would like to ensure that uneconomical coal and nuclear plants receive payments indefinitely to remain on line, whether needed or not, thus upending market-based rules in the electric power industry. Both ideas, as well as the announcement that the United States would begin backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, reflect the stated aim of the administration to reject any effort for the U.S. to join with most other countries to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. Going beyond climate change, other repealed regulations would help prevent mercury air pollution and water pollution from coal mine waste.
The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s set the standards for environmental protection during the past several decades. One of the standard practices used by the federal government has been cost-benefit analysis, as a check on unreasonably expensive regulations. In fact, environmental rules have often been found to be much cheaper to implement than expected, as demonstrated by market-based solutions to reduce pollution from sulfur emissions from power plants created at the behest of Congress.
The Supreme Court has already ruled the EPA has the duty to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. How to do so is open to the legislative and executive branches, but the requirement remains even if the CPP, an imperfect attempt to comply with the so-called “endangerment finding,” is rescinded. For years, some legislators have tried to gain traction for market-based solutions to controlling carbon dioxide emissions. Economists say costs incurred by society due to the actions of others should be included as best we can in the market – like sulfur emissions. However, legislation to incorporate estimated costs to society of climate change into energy prices have failed, due in part to a denial by some legislators of the overwhelmingly agreed-upon science that climate change is real and primarily caused by human actions.
The Obama administration EPA did weigh costs and benefits of the CPP. It was clear from the EPA analysis that the benefits, even without counting climate change impacts, outweigh the costs of implementation, because coal electricity results in so many other pollutants that have negative health effects. Even a conservative estimate of climate change damages makes the case for regulation even stronger. The CPP was finally chosen by the Obama Administration because there was a confirmed obligation for the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions, but no legislative action forthcoming.
Ironically, one of the reasons Pruitt gave for rejecting the Clean Power Plan was that it allowed too much flexibility in determining how to reduce CO2 emissions – utilities were able to offset high-emission coal plants with wind farms or other measures taken within their portfolio. The current EPA argues that emissions reductions should only be made “within the fence” of the individual power plants. Unfortunately, it is physically impossible to make sharp reductions in a coal-fired power plant’s emissions to the levels needed.
Pruitt declared that rescinding the CPP would mean the end of the “war on coal,” but the real reason for the decline of coal-mining jobs has been increasing mechanization, as was recognized by Mitch McConnell and Robert Murray when they admitted that elimination of the CPP would not bring back most coal jobs. Decreasing need for old, inefficient coal-fired electricity has mainly been because of cheap natural gas. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are rapidly becoming less expensive and even without subsidies can often now compete with fossil fuels.
Many areas in the U.S. are already experiencing the effects of climate change, such as extended droughts, more wildfires, more intense hurricanes, sea-level rise and intense precipitation events. With those costs already adding up today, it is hard to make a convincing argument that reducing emissions from the power system would be a bad investment for the future.
Bob Brecha is a professor of physics and renewable and clean energy at the University of Dayton, and is research director at the Hanley Sustainability Institute.