Why Trump's Plan to Repeal the Clean Power Plan Isn't Catastrophic

The Trump administration's attempt to undo climate regulations won't have a big impact on U.S. emissions and won't revive the coal industry.
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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a miner's helmet that he was given after speaking with coal miners at the Harvey Mine on April 13th, 2017, in Sycamore, Pennsylvania.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a miner's helmet that he was given after speaking with coal miners at the Harvey Mine on April 13th, 2017, in Sycamore, Pennsylvania.

The Trump administration's proposal to repeal the carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan likely won't have a big effect on the global carbon equation, but together with other pro-coal measures, as well as a lack of attention to energy conservation, could bump United States emissions beyond the limits targeted by the Paris climate agreement.

Still, the proposed repeal, which would eliminate limits on emissions from coal-fired plants, won't slow the worldwide shift away from fossil fuels.

"It will not affect the international coal market in any way," German climate economist Reimund Schwarze tells Pacific Standard via email, explaining that the CPP rules targeted mostly inferior, high-emissions coal in a market that's already been depressed by cheap oil and gas prices.

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed repeal of the CPP was published in the Federal Register on October 10th, triggering a lengthy review and public comment process—plus legal battles that could stretch on for years. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement that the repeal ratchets back what he characterizes as the Obama administration's regulatory overreach.

Pruitt also said that the CPP is inconsistent with the Clean Air Act, which is a legally dubious claim, according to environmental law experts, who say the issue is still under litigation in U.S. federal district court in Washington, D.C.

Criticism of the Trump administration from environmental groups reached a new pitch with the announcement, but policy and legal analysts say that repeal is far from being a done deal.

"It's a legal process that take some time," says Susanna Dröge, a senior global energy and climate policy analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin think tank. "Even if U.S. power plants don't have to meet the limits of the Clean Power Plan, the chances are low that coal will gain market share. People understand that coal is not the future."

Many of the plants that would have been most affected by the plan are old and will be retired soon, regardless of what happens to those carbon emission rules, according to Dröge and many other experts.

"The big game is on the gas side. That's never mentioned by [President Donald] Trump. He's ignoring the fact that the market decided on gas," Dröge says. Most estimates project that the U.S. will come close to meeting its Paris climate agreement targets simply because of the switch to gas and renewables; a shift in federal regulations isn't likely to change that, she adds.

Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, says it's important to remember that, at present, the CPP is not in effect, since the U.S. Supreme Court stayed implementation of the rule in February of this year.

A piece of coal at the Savage Energy Terminal on August 26th, 2016, in Price, Utah.

A piece of coal at the Savage Energy Terminal on August 26th, 2016, in Price, Utah. 

And there will be additional litigation, because the proposed repeal has serious legal flaws. For one thing, it probably violates a previous court ruling that legitimized the EPA's authority to regulate carbon emissions, Gerrard says. That means that, if and when the EPA replaces the Clean Power Plan with a less effective rule, the agency will face lawsuits from a number of states that support cutting CO2 emissions.

Legal experts say the repeal may be very vulnerable because the proposal tries to ignore well-established, scientifically documented facts that can't be overlooked by judges, such as the costs of dealing with climate change impacts.

The Obama administration said that the CPP would have net economic benefits of about $26 to $45 billion, based, in part, on avoiding the high cost of climate change impacts. But under Pruitt, the EPA is now hiding the future costs of climate change in its revised cost-benefit assessment, a sleight-of-hand that won't withstand legal scrutiny.

Nearly all experts paint Pruitt's EPA as fundamentally disregarding its obligation to protect the public from harmful pollution. Further, the administration's move to scuttle the CPP hardly reflects the breadth and diversity of support for the plan, including 18 states, 16 cities, and companies representing 10 percent of the nation's power supply, plus big businesses and brands, like Mars, Google, and Facebook, the experts said.

According to New York University environmental law expert Richard L. Revesz, the EPA's abdication of its responsibility to protect the public from pollution could unleash a flood of citizen lawsuits and other common-law litigation that could keep the agency under fire for years.

Courts have been reluctant to hear such cases in the past because there was always at least an expressed intent by federal agencies to address such issues via regulations. But in the Trump era, there are no such assurances, and that opens the legal Pandora's box, Revesz adds.

"Uncertainty gives rights to litigation. This will definitely bubble up into the courts," Revesz says.

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