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EPA analysis of its own new climate proposal: thousands of people will die

The Trump administration is proposing to replace Obama’s Clean Power Plan with a much weaker rule.

The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s Nucla coal-fired power plant is scheduled to shut down by 2020 which will result in the loss of over 80 local area jobs.
The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s Nucla coal-fired power plant is scheduled to shut down by 2020 due to environmental concerns, which will result in the loss of more than 80 area jobs.
Andy Cross/Denver Post/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released the details of its plan to replace President Obama’s signature climate change policy, the Clean Power Plan, and it’s pretty much what we expected: a tepid pledge to fight climate change that’s actually a coal bailout.

The 2015 Obama-era rule aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, now the second-largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. The CPP gave 47 states unique emissions targets while leaving it up to them how to get there. The EPA invoked health provisions of the Clean Air Act to make this rule, arguing that cutting greenhouse gas emissions would also limit other pollutants. That, in turn, would avert 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks in children, and 1,700 heart attacks each year.

However, 24 states sued to block the rule, arguing that the EPA overstepped its legal bounds. And in 2016, the Supreme Court put a stay on the CPP to allow the lawsuits to proceed.

Then Donald Trump became president and declared his love of coal and hatred of all things Obama. Even during his campaign, he made it clear that one of his top priorities would be to tear up Obama’s climate policies like the Clean Power Plan. And two months after taking office, he signed an executive order to start rolling it back (along with various other regulations on methane emissions and carbon standards for new coal plants).

But unlike Trump’s decision to begin to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, something he could do unilaterally, the EPA is required by law to regulate carbon dioxide. So if the agency wants to toss out the CPP, it still needs to come up with a regulation that limits greenhouse gases. Otherwise, the EPA would need to launch a years-long campaign to change the underlying law, which it might lose.

Today, we’re finally seeing the details of the replacement plan. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is calling it the Affordable Clean Energy proposal.

Repeal and replace. Sound familiar? As Vox’s David Roberts noted, the process of undoing the Clean Power Plan echoes the fight to repeal Obamacare. And like the health care repeal fight, it’s shaping up to be a huge mess.

For the new proposal to stand, it has to be just as good as or better than the one it replaces in order to comply with the law. But it’s much weaker than the rule it’s replacing, so the EPA is arguing for a cost-benefit calculation that justifies a relaxed standard. Meanwhile, environmental activists and some states see this as a vulnerability and are girding themselves for a legal fight.

How is the new Affordable Clean Energy proposal different from the old Clean Power Plan?

The big difference is that rather than the federal government setting targets for states, states can set targets for themselves. The ACE also restricts what states can do to push coal-fired power plants to become cleaner.

The CPP’s goal was to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030. The ACE would reduce emissions between 0.7 and 1.5 percent in the same time frame.

That means states that draw on a fossil fuel-heavy energy mix won’t have to do much to comply with the rule, essentially allowing them to carry on as is.

To justify a much weaker regulation, the EPA is changing how it calculates the economic and societal values of reducing pollution, which reduces the benefits relative to the costs of curbing pollution.

But the EPA’s own calculations show the new proposal would lead to upward of 1,400 additional premature deaths and 48,000 new cases of asthma each year due to higher levels of air pollution. So the EPA is trading the health and well-being of thousands of Americans for keeping polluting and often unprofitable power plants online. (This news was first reported by the New York Times on Tuesday.)

It’s part of a broader agenda in the Trump administration to bail out and boost coal to deliver on campaign promises.

While Trump, who is holding a rally Tuesday night in West Virginia, is likely to hail the new proposal as another win for the coal industry, the sector is still losing ground in large part due to competition from natural gas and renewables. Since 2010, more than 200 coal plants have gone offline or announced retirements. There are only four new coal plants planned in the US.

So all the ACE would do is give some of the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants a few more wheezing gasps of life.

The public will now have 60 days to comment on the rule before it’s finalized.

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