The Trump White House can slow — but cannot stop — climate progress
Today, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt signed a proposal to repeal the federal Clean Power Plan — a rule to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants that is the crown jewel of both the Obama administration’s climate legacy and President Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
It’s a headline-grabbing move that allows the Trump administration to again tout, as Pruitt did yesterday in eastern Kentucky that “the war on coal is over.” But just like every time President Trump takes credit for saving coal, Pruitt’s declarations beg for context about the ways coal is being outcompeted as clean energy continues to grow.
The Clean Power Plan represented a historic if modest step toward curbing carbon pollution and accelerating the transition to cleaner energy nationwide. It offered states flexibility to design their own energy mix and it set targets for emissions reductions beginning in 2020. Most states are on track to meet those benchmarks — and that’s unlikely to change. In addition to reducing emissions, it would have prevented thousands of premature deaths and yielded billions of dollars in annual health benefits.
Repealing the rule, on the other hand, is a historic step backward. But it’s just the latest move from an administration singularly hostile to environmental and climate protections. Like the decision to leave the Paris Agreement, the White House’s action signals to the world that the United States is unwilling to take the responsibility that comes with being one of the planet’s largest carbon emitters. Nor does it seem like the White House is willing to acknowledge the economic opportunities that come with climate action.
The move is especially stark when set against a season of deadly hurricanes and wildfires. We’re already experiencing the ways in which further delay endangers future generations. While Pruitt and other Trump appointees, along with prominent members of Congress, distort climate science, the sense of urgency and the economic burden dealt by climate change grows.
By abandoning the Clean Power Plan without proposing a replacement, Pruitt is taking an approach that runs counter to the opinion of a majority of Americans in every state who believe that there should be limits on carbon pollution. And it goes against the U.S. Supreme Court’s conclusion that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon as a threat to public health.
Losing the Clean Power Plan is bad for the country but a huge win for polluters and Pruitt personally. The former Oklahoma attorney general has made fighting the EPA on behalf of fossil fuel industries his life’s work. Now he’s infiltrated the agency and masterminded the repeal effort by relying on doctored calculations of the Clean Power Plan’s costs and benefits.
But as much as Pruitt would like to erase the Clean Power Plan completely, it won’t be that easy. The rule was finalized in 2015 and undoing it will require a rulemaking process with the opportunity for public comment and, inevitably, more legal challenges.
The fate of the Clean Power Plan as we know it is sealed. But states and electric utilities are nevertheless planning for a less carbon-intensive energy future, and the trend of coal plant retirements continues.
The Trump administration will keep taking credit for what it sees as coal mining’s tenuous comeback. Will it accept the blame for standing in the way of climate progress?
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