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What rolling back the Clean Power Plan means for the US climate fight

Scott Pruitt's initiative undoes a key framework for states to cut their emissions.

smoke stack (Shutterstock)
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 is taking additional steps to undo the Obama administration’s marquee domestic climate policy, the Clean Power Plan.

Earlier this month, it announced it will hold three more listening sessions to gather comments from the public after an “overwhelming response” to its first session held in Charleston, West Virginia.

The CPP was President Barack Obama’s signature policy and aims to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, the single largest source in the United States.

Repealing the CPP has been a top priority for President Donald Trump — two months into office, he signed an executive order to begin the long process of taking it apart. Yet make no mistake: The administration can’t simply wave the rule away. This will be a process just as fraught as the one that birthed the rule, replete with public comments and lawsuits. As Vox’s Dave Roberts explained, this repeal effort is going to be a huge mess.

Though the CPP hadn’t even been implemented — it’s been tied down in litigation and isn’t scheduled to go into force until 2022 — many states are already on a trajectory to meet or exceed their greenhouse gas targets under the rule, as this chart from the Rhodium Group shows.

Rhodium Group

But rolling back the CPP will still damage the US fight against climate change, not by loosening emissions reductions targets but by undermining a unifying principle and hampering ambitions to do better.

“The thing the Clean Power Plan did in the near term was set a signal and set a tone that CO2 was going to be regulated and all companies had to be ready to do something about it,” said John Larsen, a director at Rhodium Group analyzing energy markets.

In other words, the value of the CPP is not in its targets, but in getting everyone to agree to a framework that distributes responsibility to ratchet down emissions. Building that foundation was an arduous process, forcing even the most obstinate utility regulators in fossil fuel-heavy states like Texas to grapple with climate change. Losing it means starting from scratch, a major setback for efforts to regulate emissions.

Pruitt’s move to repeal the Clean Power Plan will immediately discourage states like Arkansas from planning carbon cuts

In some ways, the Clean Power Plan is analogous to the Paris climate accord, where every country set its own voluntary and nonbinding target. The value of the agreement is in getting every country in the world to acknowledge that climate change is a problem and that everyone has an obligation to do something about it. Then the discussion can move on the specifics of who has to cut emissions by how much and when.

Similarly, CPP set emissions reduction targets for individual states, but left open the formula for how to meet those goals, whether through retiring dirty power plants, building up renewables, or trading compliance credits with other states.

Larsen co-authored a report in October looking at what the CPP would have done had it gone into effect.

The program aimed to cut US greenhouse gas emissions from electrical power generation 32 percent by 2030 relative to 2005 levels. And so putting it into effect would lead to 72 million metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions per year on average, the analysis found.

Meanwhile, market forces like flat energy demand, low natural gas prices, and declining costs for renewables are pushing dirtier coal off the market independent of federal policy. This has pushed power sector emissions across the US on track to fall between 27 percent and 35 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

But these are rough estimates across the whole country, and the CPP is mainly a state-level policy. The Rhodium Group analysis found that up to 21 states, including Texas, West Virginia, and Georgia, would have to do more under the plan than their current glide path. They would be required to take concerted steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, like dialing back fossil fuel-fired generators.

And so it’s these states that are likely breathing a bit easier after today’s announcement.

Travis Kavulla, a former president of National Association of Regulatory and Utility Commissioners, noted on Twitter that the Clean Power Plan also moved energy decision-making authority at the state level away from regulators and toward governors, creating more flexibility but less accountability for states.

While states like California are gunning ahead with their plans to cut emissions and states like Kentucky are continuing to stall, the biggest impact of today’s announcement may be on states like Arkansas that were reluctantly taking steps to comply with the Clean Power Plan.

Arkansas was one of 26 states suing to block the CPP. But interestingly, back in February before the repeal announcement, Arkansas Public Service Commission Chair Ted Thomas told E&E News that he was concerned climate change regulations could snap back under a future administration if the current EPA doesn’t get the CPP rollback right. So Arkansas was still looking at ways to cut carbon.

"If they don't get it together, we're going to have a different administration in four years, and that's when folks might wish they had the Clean Power Plan," he said.

But today’s announcement may mean pencils down for Arkansas, leading the state to shelve its CPP compliance plans and slowing forward progress in cutting greenhouse gases.

This is a setback, but not the last gasp for federal greenhouse gas regulations

The back-and-forth over regulating carbon is also a huge headache for utilities. Energy infrastructure like power plants and transmission lines takes years to build and lasts for decades, so the decisions that will determine a state’s emissions in 2030 are being made today.

Those decisions become harder when regulations keep changing.

But remember, this isn’t the death of climate change legislation. The 2009 Supreme Court finding that the EPA must regulate carbon dioxide remains intact, and Pruitt hasn’t shown much of an appetite for challenging that legal foundation.

That means the government still has to come up with a way to regulate greenhouse gases, though Pruitt’s EPA may simply set the bar low in its attempt to replace the CPP.

“They could make standards that are weak enough that everybody is already meeting them,” Larsen said.

Meanwhile, states like California and Colorado will continue plowing ahead in cutting carbon dioxide emissions from their power plants. But without the CPP, many states will lose the incentive to even plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, going back to business as usual.

The EPA will hold next three additional listening sessions on the proposed repeal in San Francisco; Gillette, Wyoming; and Kansas City, Missouri.