The Trump Administration’s Plan to Clean Up Coal Plants Could Be Worse Than Doing Nothing

Illustration for article titled The Trump Administration’s Plan to Clean Up Coal Plants Could Be Worse Than Doing Nothing
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The Environmental Protection Agency likes to tout its proposed replacement to Obama’s Clean Power Plan as an effective way to combat greenhouse gas emissions. The Affordable Clean Energy Rule, proposed in August, really seems like the opposite though, according to a new study published this week. Much of the U.S. might be better off with no plan at all than this rule.


The study, which is still being finalized for publication in the journal Environmental Research Letters, concluded that the Trump Administration’s proposed rule for reining in coal-fired power plant emissions could actually result in up to 11 million more tons of carbon dioxide emitted nationally by 2050 compared to no policy at all. When compared to the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to decrease power plant emissions by a third in the coming years, the emission increases are even more staggering: up to 62 million more tons by 2050. And up to 18 states, plus Washington, D.C., could experience at least small increases by 2030 compared to no policy at all.

To be clear, the plan would result in some decrease in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants—and by some, I mean literally 0.6 percent nationally—over the next 10 years compared to no policy at all. However, the plan encourages the use of coal energy over the long-term, the study concludes, by making these facilities more efficient.

This phenomenon is referred to in the paper as the rebound effect. More efficient coal power plants can translate to an increase in the number of facilities that stay operational and, thus, more electricity generated from them. While the Clean Power Plan also aimed to make plants more efficient, it prioritized growing the clean energy sector and eventually leaving behind coal power plants, not encouraging their longevity.

In other words, plants that would have otherwise shuttered are likely to run more and live longer under this proposal. That’s bad for the planet: Some types of coal can emit nearly double the carbon dioxide that natural gas does. That’s why former President Barack Obama tried to phase coal out and build up cleaner energy sources like solar and wind in his Clean Power Plan.

“A rule described as the ‘best system of emission reductions’ actually leads to emissions increases at 28 percent of the plants,” said study co-author Dallas Burtraw, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, an environmental research nonprofit. “This undermines the greenhouse gas goals of regulation but also has important implications for human health.”


As Burtraw hints, reducing greenhouse gas emissions also helps reduce dangerous pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that ruin air quality, leading to lung and heart issues. The paper found that 19 states would see sulfur dioxide emissions increase by 2030 compared to what’d happen with no policy; nitrogen oxides would increase in 20 states and D.C. These pollutants are expected to be some 5.5 percent higher nationwide under Trump’s proposed rule than they would’ve been under the Clean Power Plan by 2030.

In response to all this, the EPA told Earther in an email that this rule “would continue to reduce emissions across the nation.” The agency noted that emissions would drop 34 percent from 2005 levels but declined to comment on the study’s comparison to emissions from Obama’s Clean Power Plan or whether some states could see their emissions increase despite a nationwide decrease.


“Once the [Affordable Clean Energy] rule is finalized, we have three years to work with states to continue to make these reductions as they develop their implementation plans,” wrote EPA spokesperson John Konkus to Earther.


During his confirmation hearing Wednesday, soon-to-be EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler also noted that the rule would decrease emissions. When Congress hounded him on this new research paper, however, he responded: “I have not had a chance to review it. That is not what the career people at the agency are telling me about the [Affordable Clean Energy] plan.”

Burtraw doesn’t know if EPA staff are aware of the findings from him and his colleagues, who hail from the likes of Boston University School of Public Health and the Harvard School of Public Health. But this analysis is all built on the agency’s own regulatory impact assessment of the rule. All the team did was compare it to no-policy and Clean Power Plan scenarios.


“It’s clear in the context of the regulatory process that this information should be relevant and should be considered and addressed directly by the EPA,” Burtraw told Earther.

One small limitation of this study is that some of the data, while as recent as 2018, may be outdated if there were any coal plant closures announced since then. Adding such closures could result in a slight emissions decrease, Burtraw said, but it could really go either way.


Ultimately, the Trump administration’s proposed rule could prove detrimental to efforts to bring down emissions across the energy sector. And more emissions inevitably impacts human health, particularly the predominately black and brown communities living closest to these facilities.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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Let’s look at where most coal is burned as of 2017 w.r.t 2001. The colorful bar graph below shows the top ten coal burning states as of 2017 along with the great state of New York. I added NYS because it’s home of NYC, the greatest city in the world. NYS disappears in 2017 on the graph because coal got phased out by “clean burning natural gas” cheaply procured from Pennsylvania’s chunk of the Marcellus and Utica shale fields.

Texas, the biggest coal burning state, obviously doesn’t give a shit. They could easily replace coal burning with natural gas. But why do that when a better price can be gotten by piping it elsewhere or shipping it overseas as LNG.

If you’re a cold hearted political operative who doesn’t see race you might think coal burning plays well in the red and purple states, i.e. the top 10 coal burning states above.

Illinois is the exception, but we’re talking downstate here. Of course Illinois is/was the home of FutureGen, the experimental power plant for wonderful clean coal. Obama cut off funding to it, which was good since it was just a money pit for about 30 years. Like Santa Claus, there is no such thing as clean coal.