Clean Power Plan Undoing Has State, Regional Fallout

March 28, 2017

TipSheet: Clean Power Plan Undoing Has State, Regional Fallout

The Trump Environmental Protection Agency’s determination to ditch former President Barack Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan will send ripples through all 50 states. But the ripples may not be what people expect.

The CPP is a set of regulations aimed at drastically reducing the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere from both new and old electric power plants. It was a mainstay of Obama’s program to limit man-made climate change. Much of the controversy surrounds requirements for old plants.

Electric utilities and the coal industry tend to paint the CPP as oppressive overreach, and have lobbied against it as something that might diminish their profits. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt led a phalanx of at least 24 states suing EPA to stop it (another 19 states are in court supporting the CPP). Most of those states are under Republican control and are invested heavily in fossil fuels.

But the profound transformations already underway in the electric power industry seem to have less to do with EPA regulations than with the energy market.

The CPP is not yet in effect (the Supreme Court put it on hold pending a decision on challenges). Yet coal plants are closing every week. And natural gas and renewable solar and wind are eating the coal industry’s lunch. Natural gas is abundant and cheaper than coal because vast quantities have been put on the market by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies.

In addition, the rapidly falling costs of wind and solar have prompted a steadily rising flood of new installations — not only on residential rooftops, but on utility scale. In the process, renewables have generated more jobs than coal.

Xcel Energy's Sherco coal-fired power plant in Becker, Minn.
Xcel Energy's Sherco coal-fired power plant in Becker, Minn. Photo: MPCA Photos, Flickr Creative Commons

Complex state-by-state emission reduction plans

The CPP aims to reduce CO2 emissions from U.S. electric power generation 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Each state would come up with its own plan for meeting its share of the reductions.

It gets complex. But states could meet requirements by cleaning up coal plants, as well as using more gas and renewables. States would have flexibility on how to do it and could use emissions trading or efficiency.

States vary widely on their carbon output. California, Oregon and Washington have lots of hydropower and don’t burn as much coal. States near coal deposits (e.g., Ohio or Wyoming) burn a lot of coal (and because of transport costs, coal is cheaper there.)

In general, though, the CPP would push states away from coal, simply because it emphasizes the amount of carbon emitted for a given amount of power produced.

Something else to consider: Among fuels, coal emits more of other pollutants besides carbon dioxide, such as sulfur dioxide and heavy metals. So when coal plants close, attainment of other Clean Air Act standards improves.

Reliable resources to track state-level developments

The changing energy market is a major reason why many states — even those most loudly protesting the CPP — are already well on the way to meeting its requirements. Some states, such as New York, are going ahead with decarbonization plans because they think it is the right thing to do — and also good for business.

The objections often are less about costs or jobs than an ideological allergy to regulation. As in many political battles, truth is the first casualty. When it comes to the effects of the CPP or its demise, the truth may vary, and may often be most meaningfully found at the state level.

Fortunately, environmental reporters have plenty of resources to scope out the situation state by state. Even though the CPP may never take effect, the following resources can help you understand the situation in your state as it is dismantled:

  • Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has put out a series of state-specific fact sheets on the compliance situation for each state. This general fact sheet may help you decode the state fact sheets.
  • Energy Information Administration. A really useful source of solid statistics about electric generation, fuels, emissions and renewables, broken down by state and looking back over many years. Here, just for example, is a table on use of coal for electric generation by state.
  • EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory. When discussing the CPP, it helps to know where the greenhouse gases are coming from. There’s a database for that: the EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory. It includes gases other than CO2 and gets down to the facility level.
  • EPA Green Book. The CPP and coal plants are more of a story if your audience lives in (or downwind of) an area that is not in attainment of Clean Air Act primary standards for six major health-related pollutants. These are listed in EPA’s Green Book (also on this map).
  • State and Regional Air Quality Agencies. For the local angle, there is nothing like a local agency. Many metropolitan airsheds have their own regional intergovernmental entity that takes on the regional air pollution problems, and the Clean Air Act is implemented and enforced by the many state environmental agencies (find yours for both). Tribes also have air quality programs.

And here are some reliable news sources to track the CPP story with:

  • Grist. The online environmental magazine has maps that display the relative CO2 reductions required for each state, based on EPA data.
  • E&E News. The company that publishes Climatewire and Greenwire has a CPP hub that shows, among other things, which states are suing EPA to stop the CPP. A good tracking mechanism is E&E’s Legal Challenges tracking page.
  • Reuters. The news agency did a special report showing that many states, even many suing EPA to stop the CPP, are on track to meet either the interim 2025 goals or the final 2030 goals. The results are displayed in map form.
  • Also see SEJournal’s January TipSheet on Trump administration plans for the CPP.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 13. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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