The Trump administration is gutting President Barack Obama’s climate legacy with a series of moves designed to favor the fossil fuel industry while punishing solar and wind energy producers — and Tuesday’s proposal to repeal an EPA rule on power plants is just the most visible.
President Donald Trump’s agencies have also taken steps toward buttressing coal’s historically dominant role in the electricity markets, protecting it from rising competition from cleaner sources like natural gas and wind. The administration has opened the door to rolling back the stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks that are due to take effect in 2022. And Trump’s Interior Department is loosening Obama’s limits on fossil fuel production on federal lands, while potentially clamping down on leases for wind and solar projects.
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Also waiting in the wings is an upcoming trade decision that would allow Trump to sharply increase the cost of solar installations in the U.S. — eroding sun-powered electricity’s ability to compete just as it weans itself off federal subsidies.
Trump’s supporters say the steps are needed to protect jobs and American energy dominance. But clean-energy advocates say the actions imperil the planet’s future.
“In the midst of flood and fire, our federal government is resolutely deciding to cover its eyes,” said climate activist Bill McKibben, referring to the intense hurricanes and Western wildfires that have ravaged the U.S. “History will judge few things more harshly.”
Here are five of the biggest U.S. energy policy shifts taking place under Trump:
1) Killing the power plant rule
The Clean Power Plan that the Environmental Protection Agency is moving to revoke was the crown jewel of Obama’s climate change legacy — representing the first time the U.S. had gone after the climate-warming pollution that’s belched out of coal-fired power plants’ smokestacks. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — a former Oklahoma attorney general who had sued to block the regulation — signed the paperwork Tuesday to begin the long process of withdrawing the rule, fulfilling a Trump campaign promise.
The power plant rule sought to capitalize on the U.S. electric industry’s shift away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables. The Obama EPA had estimated the rule would cut the power sector’s carbon dioxide emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. (The U.S. is already more than halfway to that goal even without the rule.)
“This is a policy that the world wants and that makes sense because of market forces and a policy the world needs because, hello, we’re seeing climate change effects on people every day,” said Janet McCabe, Obama’s former EPA air chief.
EPA’s new repeal proposal echoes the coal industry’s arguments — and Pruitt’s previous legal filings — in contending that the Obama administration overstepped its authority.
Pruitt’s agency is considering a potential replacement rule, but one that would yield much smaller emissions cuts. If that effort succeeds, a future Democratic administration could find itself barred from imposing significant regulations on greenhouse gases from other major polluting industries.
2) Securing coal’s place in the markets
Energy Secretary Rick Perry issued a surprise directive last month aimed at altering the nation’s electricity markets by giving an economic advantage to power plants that keep large fuel supplies on site — a move clearly aimed at helping the coal industry ward off increasingly stiff competition. (It would also benefit nuclear power, another economically struggling sector.)
Coal is the nation’s most abundant power plant fuel, but a combination of environmental regulations, huge surges in natural gas and wind-energy production and slumping demand for electricity have prompted power companies to shutter many coal-burning plants in the past decade. As recently as 2007, coal fueled more than half the electric power sector’s net electricity generation — but as of this summer that had fallen to less than a third.
Green-energy supporters say simple economics are spelling coal’s demise — but Perry has argued that the trend puts the “resiliency” of the nation’s power grid at risk, endangering national and economic security. His plan, if enacted by the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, would insulate coal and nuclear power plants from the low power prices that have put dozens of older plants into retirement.
DOE’s proposal, according to one Montana utility regulator, would be “the largest change to electricity regulation in decades.”
Critics say the rule could heap billions of dollars in additional energy costs on homes and businesses without a guarantee that they won’t lose power when the next hurricane rips out their power lines or a polar vortex freezes the pile of coal at a power plant.
But that decision will ultimately fall to the five commissioners of FERC, an agency made up largely of technocrats that has long sought to safeguard the energy markets. The markets aren’t perfect, but Perry’s rule is “a draconian way of fixing it,” said Pat Wood, a former FERC chief who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
3) Launching a solar trade war?
A vote by a federal trade panel last month will allow Trump to impose tariffs or a quota on imported solar panels that make up the vast majority of the fast-growing U.S. renewables market — if he chooses to.
The decision by the U.S. International Trade Commission agreed with bankrupt solar manufacturers Suniva and SolarWorld that the low-cost imports had harmed U.S.-based producers. Now, people following the case expect that Trump will slap trade barriers on the imported solar equipment, which is largely produced by Chinese-based companies at factories across Asia.
Those barriers would help the small number of U.S.-based solar manufacturers that remain in existence but could send costs skyrocketing and hurt the much larger solar installation industry. It would also threaten to end the U.S. solar boom, which saw the technology become the country’s biggest source of new power generation last year for the first time ever.
With the help of federal subsidies, which will be fully phased out by 2020, the solar industry has slashed costs far faster than predicted and grown more rapidly than expected. But the production of cells and panels has shifted to countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and South Korea.
The ITC will send its recommendations for trade remedies to Trump by Nov. 13 — though the White House can ultimately implement any barrier it chooses. That has solar installers and project developers in a panic, and many are stockpiling panels ahead of possible tariffs. The Solar Energy Industries Association is predicting up to 88,000 job losses, or nearly a third of the U.S. sector. And if domestic manufacturing ramps over the next year, 2018 is likely to see supply shortfalls and price spikes as production fails to catch even reduced demand.
4) Hitting the brakes on fuel economy
Trump announced in March that EPA would reconsider the tightened mileage standards that Obama had imposed for cars sold from 2022 to 2025, a move the former president’s agencies had said would lift the average to about 50 miles per gallon. Trump’s agency is expected to roll back the requirements.
In a review hastened to completion just before Obama left office, then-EPA chief Gina McCarthy had affirmed that the aggressive mileage standard was feasible.
Trump’s decision to review the target came amid pressure from U.S. automakers to cut back the standards, but it could backfire. The Clean Air Act includes an exception for California to set its own mileage standards, and if EPA changes the requirements, it won’t affect California or the 11 other states that follow the Golden State’s lead. For automakers, it opens up the nightmare scenario of producing cars for two different U.S. standards.
5) Opening federal lands to fossil fuels
Trump’s Interior Department is seeking to boost oil, gas and coal production by taking a hatchet to Obama-era regulations that govern fossil fuel production on public land. One of the biggest moves so far would reverse Obama’s tightened restrictions on leaks of planet-warming methane from drilling wells, pipelines and other infrastructure.
Interior also said it would postpone and rewrite a controversial Obama administration rule that requires drillers to publicly disclose the chemicals they used to frack wells on federal land, among other things.
Interior also has scuttled a review that probably would likely have increased the royalties that coal companies must pay to mine on federal land. And in August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that Trump shrink the size of several national monuments in Utah, Oregon and Nevada, a move that would potentially open them up for drilling or mining. Zinke is aiming to lift restrictions on grazing, mining, fishing and timber harvesting at those and a handful of other monuments.
Besides fighting against previous rules, Interior is trying to take steps it says will increase oil production off the Alaskan coasts and in the long-protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Darius Dixon, Ben Lefebvre, Emily Holden and Esther Whieldon contributed to this report.