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Power plants, such as PacifiCorp’s Hunter coal-fired plant in Castle Dale, Utah, are the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. | George Frey/AFP via Getty Images

The Affordable Clean Energy rule, which replaced Obama’s Clean Power Plan, would’ve led to more power sector emissions.

On President Donald Trump’s last full day in office, a federal court struck down his final effort to undo his predecessor’s legacy on climate change, handing President-elect Joe Biden a clean slate to craft regulations for greenhouse gases from power plants.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the 2019 Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, the Trump administration’s effort to lower power sector emissions by a tepid 11 million tons, or between 0.7 and 1.5 percent, by 2030. The rule replaced President Barack Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce US power sector emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. (Obama’s Clean Power Plan never took effect — a number of Republican state attorneys general sued to block it, and the Supreme Court issued a stay to allow those lawsuits to proceed.)

Power generation is the second-largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, and the EPA is required to regulate these emissions under the Clean Air Act, according the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. So the Trump administration couldn’t simply repeal the Obama-era regulation; it had to come up with a replacement.

One quirk of the ACE rule is that it was actually worse for the environment than doing nothing because it created incentives to burn more fossil fuels. While the Obama rule allowed power plants to use a variety of tactics to reduce their emissions, the Trump rule centered on increasing efficiency — i.e. drawing more energy from each unit of fossil fuels. This has the side effect of making fossil fuels more cost effective. One study found that the ACE rule would cause 28 percent of model coal plants to spew more carbon dioxide by 2030 compared to a scenario with no policy at all.

The Trump EPA’s own regulatory impact assessment showed that the extra pollution stemming from the ACE rule could cause between 460 and 1,400 additional deaths per year by 2030, alongside worsening maladies like asthma. Air pollution from sources such as power plants, which worsens heart and lung problems, remains a major public health scourge.

The effort to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan was part of the Trump administration’s broader attack on climate change policies implemented under Obama, from withdrawing the US from the Paris climate agreement to relaxing fuel economy standards on cars and light trucks.

But the ACE rule also came under attack, with Democrat-led states arguing in court that the regulation didn’t go far enough. Finally, on January 19, the DC Circuit court ruled that the Trump EPA’s ACE rule was flawed.

“Because promulgation of the ACE Rule and its embedded repeal of the Clean Power Plan rested critically on a mistaken reading of the Clean Air Act, we vacate the ACE Rule and remand to the [Environmental Protection] Agency,” reads the unsigned opinion.

The ruling criticized the EPA’s position that it’s only allowed to regulate emissions directly at the source — the power plants themselves — rather than across the power sector as a whole. The latter opens the door to tactics such as pricing carbon dioxide emissions or optimizing the power grid to shift to lower-carbon energy sources that can lead to larger reductions in emissions.

With the ACE rule vacated, the EPA now has to come up with a new way to regulate power plants’ greenhouse gases. For Biden, who has laid out an ambitious agenda on climate change, this ruling presents an opportunity to put his plans into action, starting with the people he’ll put in charge. Biden has selected Michael Regan — the current secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality of North Carolina, where he helped implement the state’s climate change targets — to replace former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as EPA administrator.

That doesn’t mean a Biden power plant policy will sail smoothly, however. He will have to contend with a judiciary stacked with Trump appointees, including a Supreme Court that’s even more slanted against environmental regulations than what Obama faced.

Author: Umair Irfan

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