Scott Pruitt Says That EPA Will Repeal the Clean Power Plan

October 10, 2017
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by Nicole Einbinder Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

In this June 1, 2017 photo, President Donald Trump listens as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks about the U.S. exit from the Paris climate change accord. On Monday, Pruitt said the EPA will move to repeal the Clean Power Plan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

This post has been updated.

The Trump administration took its first formal step on Tuesday to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the signature Obama-era climate policy, but did not offer an immediate replacement — leaving little indication as to how the Environmental Protection Agency plans to meet its obligation to regulate the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

After announcing the repeal from the heart of coal country in Kentucky on Monday, EPA chief Scott Pruitt officially signed off on a proposed rule in Washington today to roll back “the so-called Clean Power Plan” that was finalized by the Obama administration in 2015.

“The Obama administration pushed the bounds of their authority so far with the CPP that the Supreme Court issued a historic stay of the rule, preventing its devastating effects to be imposed on the American people while the rule is being challenged in court,” Pruitt said in a statement. “We are committed to righting the wrongs of the Obama administration by cleaning the regulatory slate.”

The Clean Power Plan was expected to cut the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. Under the plan, states were assigned individual targets for cutting their emissions, but given broad latitude to develop their own strategies for achieving them. The plan was considered a key plank of U.S. efforts to comply with the Paris climate agreement, which President Donald Trump ultimately withdrew from in June.

Rather than introduce an immediate replacement for the Clean Power Plan, the administration said it will seek public comment on how to lower emissions from coal-fired and natural-gas power plants, which are responsible for approximately one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. The EPA is legally required to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under a 2009 agency determination known as the endangerment finding. The Supreme Court has also said that the agency is obligated to regulate carbon emissions.

Tuesday’s announcement had been expected since March, when President Trump signed an executive order from EPA headquarters instructing Pruitt to begin the process of dismantling the rule.

“What was most awkward about watching the signing of that executive order was the fact that they were doing it at EPA,” said Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator when the Clean Power Plan was introduced, in a recent interview for the upcoming FRONTLINE documentary War on the EPA. “To me it was not just a signal to his base, but a real shot across the bow to the agency itself. It was disturbing.”

The Clean Power Plan faced legal hurdles from the get-go: 27 states, as well as dozens of corporations and industry groups, challenged the rule in court, arguing that the Obama administration exceeded its legal authority in crafting the plan. Critics argued that in order to meet the plan’s emissions targets, states would have to subsidize energy sources like solar and wind while moving away from coal. The Supreme Court blocked the rule from taking effect last year while lower courts considered the challenges against it.

Among those who challenged the rule in court was Pruitt, who in his previous job as Oklahoma attorney general sued the agency he now runs a total of 14 times.

The repeal proposal was greeted warmly by industry groups. “Repealing this Obama-era rule would close a chapter of regulatory overreach that set standards without regard to the steep costs or availability of technology necessary to meet them,” National Mining Association president and CEO Hal Quinn told FRONTLINE in a statement. “The Clean Power Plan represented an unlawful attempt to transform the nation’s power grid.”

However, some opponents of the plan also acknowledged that they supported limited regulations to address emissions. Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a statement that while his group agrees with the EPA’s conclusion, they also “recognize the need for a policy to address greenhouse gas emissions.” The NAM, Eisenberg said, “supports a greenhouse gas policy going forward that is narrowly tailored and consistent with the Clean Air Act.”

Vickie Patton, general counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, said Pruitt’s action represents “one of the most damaging rollbacks of public health and fundamental clean air protections that an EPA administrator has ever undertaken.”

For now, the administration is offering few details about how President Trump, who in the past has referred to climate change as a “hoax,” plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of the Clean Power Plan. In his Tuesday statement, Pruitt said, “Any replacement rule will be done carefully, properly, and with humility, by listening to all those affected by the rule.”

It could take months before a new plan begins to take shape. In a draft of the repeal plan obtained last week by The Washington Post, the EPA said it intended to issue a formal call for public comment – known as Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking — on how it can best cut emissions from coal- and natural-gas plants. Yet in the same document, the agency said it “had not determined” whether it will issue a new rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, “and, if it will do so, when it will do so and what form that rule will take.”

“If the administration starts off slowly with an advanced notice, which simply says we’re thinking about doing something in this area and are soliciting comments on it, rather than a proposed rule, which would then become a final rule in the next step, they get to create additional steps and give themselves more time,” said Ben Longstreth, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Longstreth said that one of the advantages of issuing an advanced notice is that while environmental groups can legally challenge any final proposal that comes out of the rulemaking process, they can’t challenge an advanced notice itself.

Environmental and legal experts say that if the EPA does move forward with a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, it is likely to limit reforms to efficiency improvements at individual power plants. In a 2014 document titled “The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Plan,” Pruitt wrote that this type of “inside the fence” approach “ensures that emissions reductions are limited to the engineering limits of each facility.” The EPA has said that this type of approach would only lower emissions between 2 and 4 percent at coal plants.

In his 2014 plan, Pruitt also said that states “may make a case-by-case determination that a specific facility or class of facilities are subject to a less-stringent standard or longer compliance schedule,” which would allow states to meet less-stringent standards if they chose.

“It really was a recipe for not making any real significant emission reductions. And this is happening at a time when we are absolutely ready to have clean energy in multiple forms take off,” said Longstreth.

Supporters of the Clean Power Plan say it would have ushered in a myriad of economic and health benefits. An archived EPA fact sheet on the plan noted that it would have helped avoid 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks and 300,000 missed work and school days each year. In addition to C02 reductions, the EPA anticipated that by 2030, emissions of sulfur dioxide from power plants would drop 90 percent compared to 2005 levels, while emissions of nitrogen oxides would drop 72 percent.

“Today’s proposal to revoke the Clean Power Plan is inconsistent with the EPA’s core mission of protecting public health and the environment,” 17 health and medical organizations, including the American Lung Association, Allergy and Asthma Network and the Children’s Environmental Health Network, said in a statement. “The health impacts of climate change demand immediate action. Failing to address this public health crisis will have lasting consequences.”

The Trump administration estimates that eliminating the Clean Power Plan could save as much as $33 billion in avoided compliance costs by 2030.

The Obama administration estimated that the plan would cost industry $8.4 billion, but ultimately yield as much as $54 billion in climate and health benefits. A recent analysis by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University found that the cost of compliance is cheaper today thanks to factors like the falling cost of renewable energy and continuing declines in the price of natural gas.

For example, between 2009 and 2016, the costs of solar energy fell by 85 percent, while costs of wind energy fell by 66 percent, according to a report by Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm.

Experts say that the administration’s actions are all but certain to spark a new round of legal challenges over how the EPA regulates greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think it’s safe to say it will be carefully reviewed by legal experts across the country,” said Patton, of the Environmental Defense Fund. Groups like hers, she said, “will be doing all we can to ensure that the law is carried out and these protections remain in place.”

War on the EPA premieres Wednesday, October 11 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS stations (check local listings) and online at pbs.org/frontline.

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