In a much anticipated move, the Trump Administration has proposed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule as a replacement for the Obama Administration Clean Power Plan (CPP). While the CPP was controversial from the start for it broad regulation of the power industry, the ACE rule will be controversial as it signifies a 180 degree turn from aggressive climate change regulation of the energy sector.
Overview of CPP
The CPP was finalized on October 23, 2015. The fundamental goal was to reduce CO2 emissions from the energy sector (one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions) by 32% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. The reductions were to be achieved through significant emission reductions from coal power plants coupled with incentives to move toward renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The CPP was touted a being flexible by giving states freedom to choose among various “building blocks” to achieve the necessary reductions. States could either choose to regulate emissions from individual power plants or set a statewide cap of total CO2 emissions from its power sector.
Each state was given its own target for reductions (i.e. hard cap on emissions). Under the rule, states must submit their plans (referred to as State Implementation Plans or SIPs) by 2018 and start achieving reductions by 2022. If a state failed to adopt an approvable SIP by the deadline, EPA would impose its own Federal Implementation Plan (or FIP) to achieve the necessary reductions.
The CPP was controversial from the start. Many believed the structure of the plan as an overall regulation of the energy sector went significantly beyond EPA’s legal authority. The entire CPP hinged on the EPA’s authority under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act. Under Section 111, the CPP set emissions standards across the entire energy sector thereby changing the mix of production to natural gas and renewables. The crux of the legal challenge to the CPP was that Section 111 only allowed EPA to impose controls at individual power plants (i.e. within the “fence line”), not broadly across the energy sector. In February 2016, in a rare move, the Supreme Court issued a stay of the effectiveness of the CPP while the legal challenges to the CPP were heard in lower courts.
Why Replace the CPP?
The Trump Administration exited the United States from the Paris Agreement, the international accord on climate change. President Trump and former Administrator Pruitt repeatedly questioned whether climate change was occurring. Trump called the CPP a “job-killing regulation.” Then why not simply repeal the CPP with no replacement?
To repeal the CPP, the Trump Administration must go through the formal rulemaking process. The Administration would have to justify, legally, why it is getting rid of the plan. Complicating any effort to simply get rid of climate change regulation of the power sector was the Supreme Court prior ruling in Massachusetts. v. EPA that the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions was required under the Clean Air Act. Furthermore, the Obama Administration had already asserted that Section 111 of the Clean Air Act provide EPA the legal authority to regulate CO2 emission from power plants. Therefore, given the prior Supreme Court ruling and EPA’s prior legal statements, it would be very difficult for the Administration to develop a legal justification for why there should be no regulation of CO2 emissions from the power sector. The Administration likely decided a more prudent move would be to replace the CPP with a more flexible and less stringent rule.
Affordable Clean Energy Rule
The ACE rule reconsiders EPA’s authority under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act. While EPA still maintains it has authority to regulate C02 emissions, it believes that authority is limited to requiring specific improvements at individual coal fired power plants (i.e. within the “fence line). The standards in ACE are based on a list of candidate heat rate improvement measures (either technologies or operational changes). ACE removes the push toward natural gas and renewables. ACE also removes the ability of states to set statewide CO2 caps on emissions as well as the trading program that would have allowed states to trade amongst themselves to more cost effectively achieve necessary emission reductions.
Under the ACE rule, each state must develop custom compliance schedules that include the selected emission standard and compliance deadlines. States must submit the plans for EPA’s review within three years of the final EPA rule. This effectively pushes the compliance deadline for states from 2018 under the CPP to likely 2022. However, units are given up to 24 months to comply, which effectively pushes compliance deadlines further to 2025.
ACE also aims to encourage energy efficiency by redefining the applicability of the New Source Review (NSR) rules for power plants. Under NSR, a facility must apply for a permit every time there is a “major modification” to an existing plant. Under the existing NSR rule a change to facility is considered a “major modification” by measuring the change in annual emissions. Critics of this approach argue this actually discourages energy efficiency upgrades because: 1) utilities may not adopt energy efficient upgrades due to the lengthy permitting process required; and 2) utilities may want to run plants that are more efficient more often and determining whether a upgrade constitutes a “major modification” based on annual emissions discourages increased operation of more efficient plants. ACE proposes to change the measure for major modifications to an hourly emission test. This change could greatly reduce the applicability of NSR to existing plants thereby avoiding the lengthy permitting process and encouraging operations of more efficient plants. Critics argue NSR ensured the plants could not extend there useful life without adopting new emission reduction technologies.
Despite the radically different approaches to regulate CO2 from the power sector, EPA projects that the reductions under ACE are very similar to CPP. This is because market forces will continue to push more closures of coal fired power plants as the country moves more to natural gas. However, critics argue ACE contains no hard cap on emissions, therefore, the projected reductions are not guaranteed.
What is Next for CPP and ACE?
ACE must undergo a sixty day comment period before the rule can be finalized. If ACE is made final, numerous legal challenges will certainly ensue. Once again, the future of climate change regulation in the United States will be decided in the courts.