Candidate Trump put a bulls-eye on the CPP on the campaign trail last year and he and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, have made no secret of their desire to scrap it.
An Embarrassingly Weak Case
While it’s no surprise that Pruitt and the president have delivered on their threat, the repeal proposal itself is an exercise in evasion and omission that makes an embarrassingly weak case for axing the CPP. Pruitt has been an outspoken skeptic of climate science and the president famously called climate change a hoax. But the proposal contains no discussion of climate change, the very concern that motivated the CPP in the first place.
But the proposal contains no discussion of climate change, the very concern that motivated the CPP in the first place.
It neither endorses nor rejects the many scientific reports in the US and internationally strongly linking made-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) to warming of the planet. It ignores the contribution of coal-fired power plants to the alarming rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere. And it fails to discuss the dramatic growth in the US of clean technologies capable of providing electricity at a competitive price without the emissions resulting from fossil-fuel power production.
One might expect that the president and Pruitt would address these issues head-on when dismantling a major pillar of US climate change policy in order to convince the public that they are doing the right thing. But the sole basis provided for repealing the CPP is a legal one: according to the proposal, the Clean Air Act (CAA) provisions on which the Obama EPA relied only allow EPA to regulate emission control technologies at individual power plants and don’t authorize broader strategies like shifting from coal to natural gas and wind or solar. The proposal tries to make this interpretation seem black-and-white but, as the Obama EPA showed, there are powerful arguments on the other side. The best that can be said for the Pruitt approach is that the Act is ambiguous and his is a possible interpretation but not the only nor the best one.
Pruitt’s narrow reading of the law would limit EPA’s role to fine-tuning the efficiency of individual coal plants, a largely meaningless task that would that barely move the dial on emissions. But there are compelling reasons why the CAA should be interpreted to allow EPA to use a broader mix of strategies that can achieve significant emission reductions across the grid.
An Imperative to Act
The CPP was not developed in a vacuum. It was an outgrowth of the all-important 2007 decision of the Supreme Court in Massachusetts v EPA, which upheld EPA’s authority under the Act to address climate change and required action to reduce CO2 emissions unless the agency could conclude that they did not endanger public health and welfare. EPA acted on the court’s decision with its 2009 “endangerment finding,” which exhaustively reviewed the science and concluded that, without action, rising CO2 emissions would likely result in dangerous warming trends harmful to human health and the economy.
These landmark actions strongly argue for an interpretation of the CAA that provides EPA with tools that are commensurate with the climate challenge and will be effective in lowering the US carbon footprint. But the CPP repeal proposal doesn’t mention Massachusetts v EPA and refers to the endangerment in passing without discussing its significance.
Again, the president and Pruitt have chosen to ignore the big picture.
Again, the president and Pruitt have chosen to ignore the big picture– fixating on a legalistic analysis without considering whether it serves the larger goals of the CAA or adequately responds to serious threats that EPA itself has fully documented.
Distorting the CPP’s Costs and Benefits
President Trump and Pruitt have stridently attacked the CPP for increasing electricity costs and killing jobs. But these claims, too, are not repeated in the proposal.
One clue to this omission is the regulatory impact analysis (RIA) that was released with the proposal and provides estimates of its costs and benefits. It appears that Pruitt instructed the EPA career staff to make assumptions grossly unfavorable to the CPP in order to calculate the largest possible negative economic impact; for example, the RIA models scenarios that minimize the CPP’s reductions in unhealthy air pollutants, inflate the costs of compliance, only count the climate benefits of CO2 reductions in the US, and greatly discount the future benefits of lower global temperatures.
But even with these questionable assumptions, the RIA concludes under several scenarios that the lost benefits from repealing the CPP will be greater than the cost savings – in one case by nearly $16 billion in 2025 and $26 billion in 2030. In short, despite putting his thumb on the scale,
Pruitt could not come close to showing that the US economy will be better off without the CPP than with it.
The economic case against the CPP is further rebutted by the rapid evolution of the power sector away from fossil fuels and the sizable drop in CO2 emissions independent of CPP requirements. Just two days before Pruitt unveiled the proposed CPP repeal, a Texas power producer announced that it was closing one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the US. According to the latest data from the US Energy Information Administration, power sector emissions declined by 24 percent between 2005 and 2016. This represents 75 percent of the CPP’s target of a 32 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, 13 years from now. A recent analysis by the Rhodium Group predicts that this target will be met even if the CPP is never implemented. That market forces are driving a rapid decarbonization of the electricity sector that parallels the goals of the CPP is an inconvenient reality that the president, Pruitt, and their coal industry supporters simply ignore.
Seeking Refuge in Legalisms
The many evasions and omissions in the CPP repeal proposal demonstrate that, despite its bluster, the Trump Administration is on fundamentally weak ground and cannot or will not make a case against the CPP based on larger considerations of policy, economics, and science. Its decision to take refuge in narrow legalisms may keep lawyers busy but ultimately will ring hollow as world leaders continue to coalesce around real solutions to the real threat of climate change and the president and Pruitt put their heads in the sand.