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Recent Rollbacks Mean Dirtier Air, Increased Deaths from Pollution

Since the Trump administration took over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it has talked a lot about its return to its “core mission.” It even has a whole section on its website devoted to the topic. But, after more than a year, it has become clearer than ever that actually protecting the environment isn’t a priority. Instead, the number one mission appears to be its campaign to destroy any progress President Obama made in reducing air pollution and combating climate change.  

The first salvo of this campaign targeted the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, the transportation sector. On Aug. 2, the Trump administration released its proposal to roll back clean vehicle rules that the Obama administration negotiated with automakers. Worse still, this would also withdraw the California waiver so states like Pennsylvania would lose the ability to opt-in to more protective standards for their citizens. 

The Trump plan, now called the “Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles” rule, is clearly a disaster for air quality. Since it does not advance the agency’s old “core mission” of protecting the environment, the EPA has shifted its focus. Our new vehicles will chug out more smog-forming pollutants, cancer-causing particulates, and greenhouse gases, but the EPA claims (with little justification) that those new dirty vehicles will be safer and cheaper. 

The Trump EPA’s recent attack on clean air is its proposal to repeal the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). If adopted, this new proposal will result in more than 1,400 additional fatalities from air pollution, increase the amount of missed school from students suffering from asthma and lost productivity from the parents who care for them, exacerbate global warming, and end up forcing consumers to pay more for dirtier, more polluting energy. In spite of that, the Trump administration decided to call it the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule (ACE). 

The CPP was built around section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act (CAA), which requires existing power plants to use the “best system of emissions reductions” (BSER) that, after considering costs, health benefits, and energy requirements, has been adequately demonstrated. The Obama-era EPA did a comprehensive analysis and set state-by-state emissions standards that were presumptively BSER. It then tasked state governors to submit plans on how to meet those standards. Overall, this would result in an 870 million tons reduction in carbon pollution and have net benefits between $26 and $45 billion. In Pennsylvania, this would only take a modest step forward. We were about halfway to our target by the time the rule was proposed and had a number of cost-effective options to move forward.

The current ACE plan being proposed throws out the old rule, sacrificing $23 to $42 billion in net benefits for what the Trump administration claims is a $6 billion reduction in compliance costs.  It concludes that this bad deal for consumers is really the “best system of emissions reductions” because it ignores that the power grid is highly interconnected. Instead, the EPA redefines BSER to only include minor tune-ups and other efficiencies that can be adopted at each individual facility, even if much cheaper reductions are available elsewhere. It also creates much more work for state environmental agencies by throwing out presumptive BSER levels and forcing states to start from scratch.

The companies that own coal-fired power plants support this new plan, but even they admit that they just aren’t competitive in today's market and ACE isn’t going to make much of a difference as to whether they stay in operation or retire. In fact, just days after the EPA released this proposal, First Energy announced its money-losing Bruce Mansfield plant--the largest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania--will close in 2021 unless the federal government steps in and forces consumers to pay higher electricity bills to bail them out.

We are being told that such a bail out is necessary because retiring coal plants are a threat to grid reliability. This simply isn’t the case. If a power plant slated for retirement is actually needed, it can be designated as a reliability must-run (RMR) unit and be compensated accordingly on a temporary basis until system improvements can be completed and it can retire. 

There reality though is that with competition from cheaper natural gas and growth in clean renewable generation, these coal plants just aren’t necessary. It’s no surprise that no new coal plants are expected to be built in Pennsylvania and retirements of existing plants will continue. The five other large (> 1GW) coal plants in Pennsylvania besides Bruce Mansfield are all 40 to to 50 years old and are nearing retirement. At least one of those plants, Brunner Island, is in the process of converting to natural gas, and others have admitted financial trouble.  In spite of this, The EPA is claiming that ACE will result in a 4.5 to 5.8 percent increase in coal use--an obvious lie.

Just because ACE won’t make much difference for the coal industry doesn’t mean the administration has given up on a coal bail-out. A top Trump-appointee at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently said that they are working to identify plants they consider “critical” and find a way to “value” them. This follows a proposal from the Department of Energy last year asking FERC to “value” plants with more than 90-days of fuel on site (e.g. coal) in the name of “resilience.” In both of these cases, the word “value” means the same thing--it means forcing consumers like you to pay extra for dirty power that you don’t want or need.

You can take action! Click here to contact the EPA to stop the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, which would result in 1,400 more deaths from air pollution.

Click here to demand better regulations for vehicle emissions in PA and contact Alex Cupo at if you are interested in attending a hearing on Sept. 26 in Pittsburgh.

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