Trump EPA plan would give states more authority on coal plant emissions; Maryland officials wary

President Donald Trump’s administration on Tuesday proposed a new set of rules that would give states greater control over limits on pollution from coal-fired power plants — and likely allow many of those plants to operate longer than they would have under a plan former President Barack Obama had set in motion.

The Trump plan comes as Maryland officials are pressing the federal government to require coal plants in upwind states to do more to scrub their emissions of harmful pollutants.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state would oppose any changes to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that make it less stringent and reduce federal enforcement of power plant pollution.

Grumbles said the state would explore legal action and work on state- and region-level efforts to reduce air pollution and emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. State environmental regulators estimate that as much as 70 percent of smog that often makes the air unhealthy in Maryland blows in from other states.

“It underscores now more than ever the need for state and regional leadership,” Grumbles said. “The more states that are putting a price on carbon, the better.”

Trump administration officials say the change would encourage coal plants to increase efficiency,

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat who has powers to act independently of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, noted that he has already sued Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Obama rules. If necessary, he said, he’ll sue again, arguing there is no valid scientific reasoning behind the Trump administration’s proposal.

“They cooked the books so the can cook the planet, really,” Frosh said. “It’s a canard. It’s a sham.”

The administration’s announcement fulfills a pledge Trump made almost a year ago to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan, when former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declared “the war on coal is over.” The president was expected to make similar declarations at a rally Tuesday night in West Virginia.

The Obama plan aimed to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by a third below 2005 levels by 2030, but critics called it a federal overreach, and successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to put the program on hold in 2016. It would have required states to meet specific emissions reduction targets and required them to create plans to meet those goals.

Instead, the EPA is proposing to allow states to decide what needs to be done at individual coal plants to clean the air, subject to federal review, using emissions-cleaning technologies from a list the EPA is creating.

It calls its proposal the Affordable Clean Energy rule.

“The era of top-down, one-size-fits-all federal mandates is over,” acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said. “We will give states and the private sector the regulatory certainty they need to invest in new technologies.”

The fossil fuel industry praised the new rule as a boon to an industry that has suffered amid competition from cheap natural gas and increasing regulation. American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity CEO Michelle Bloodworth said she was pleased to see a replacement for Obama’s “illegal” proposal.

“The Clean Power Plan would have caused more fuel-secure coal-fired power plants to retire prematurely even though policy makers have become increasingly concerned that coal retirements are a threat to grid resilience and national security,” she said in a statement.

Environmental groups were quick to criticize the plan for lacking any quantifiable emissions limits for coal plants and other power generators.

“This proposal would eliminate almost all the life-saving climate and health benefits that the Clean Power Plan provides,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “The Trump-Wheeler plan will mean millions of tons more air pollution endangering our kids’ health, lives and future.”

The Sierra Club called the proposal a political ploy to please coal country voters, and said it might delay but would not prevent closures of coal plants across the country. The group estimates that 270 “dirty” plants have closed since 2010, and it is pushing for another 260 to be retired.

“The proposed rollback of life-saving clean air and climate safeguards is unacceptable and exposes Wheeler’s EPA as a puppet of the very coal executives who used to sign his paychecks and want to pollute with impunity,” said David Smedick, campaign and policy director for the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter.

“Maryland needs a concrete plan to transition away from coal-fired power plants that also ensures our workers and communities that traditionally rely on coal are protected and prioritized in the clean energy economy,” Smedick said.

EPA officials said they expect “very little difference” in emissions reductions between the Trump plan and the Obama plan because of the growing use of relatively cleaner natural gas and emissions-free renewable energy sources since the Clean Power Plan was proposed in 2014. And they questioned projections that the emissions reductions will be far lower under the Trump plan; they said it remains to be seen what states will do to cut power plant emissions.

Legal challenges of the Trump rules are likely if they become permanent, Frosh said. First, they must go through a period of public comment.

Maryland has already taken numerous actions against Trump’s EPA, and in support of the Obama rules. The Hogan administration has already pressed the EPA not to abandon the Obama plan, and said its repeal would set back state goals to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The state has also already sued to push EPA to limit pollution from coal plants in upwind states.

EPA officials said they believe the new rules are on solid legal footing. They called the Obama rules “a misapplication” of the federal Clean Air Act.

“It was essentially a federal mandate that left states very little latitude,” said Bill Wehrum, EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation. “We’re bringing this regulation back into focus and requiring the states look at emissions controls that can be applied at the source.”

Frosh said he and other attorneys general will likely argue the Trump rules are “capricious and arbitrary.”

“The Clean Power Plant was a fact-based, science-based proposal to reduce carbon and other air pollution,” he said. “Now they’ve come up with a new rule that they claim is based on science, and it ain’t.”

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