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Trump’s energy plan was vacated and Obama’s is outdated. What’s next?

EPA memo said reinstating Obama plan would ‘not make sense’

Solar panels near the Indianapolis International Airport.
Solar panels near the Indianapolis International Airport. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Clean Power Plan is dead. Now what?

A month after a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., vacated the Trump administration’s primary regulation on electric power generation, a top air pollution official at EPA said the agency will not reactivate the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era emissions rule for utilities that Trump’s EPA tried to replace.

The acting administrator for EPA’s air office, Joseph Goffman, said in a memo Friday that reinstating the Obama-era plan — a pollution rule that set tougher standards than the agency did during the Trump administration — would “not make sense.”

That comment came on the heels of testimony from Michael Regan, President Joe Biden’s nominee for EPA administrator, who indicated during his confirmation hearing that he would chart a new course to regulate carbon emissions from electricity generation if confirmed.

The EPA has not issued a formal plan to knock down utility-sector pollution, but climate advocates, Biden administration allies and congressional testimony provide clues about what such a plan may and may not entail, and Democrats in Washington have a number of regulatory and legislative options to pursue their goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

[As oceans rise, Democrats put all hands on deck for climate change]

An agency spokesperson said EPA will “follow the science and law” as it reviews “actions issued under the previous Administration to ensure that they protect public health and the environment, tackle the climate crisis and air pollution, advance environmental justice, restore science, and build back better.” 

On deck

Democrats’ first sweeping climate move on deck is a public works bill lawmakers are expected to introduce after Congress finishes work on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, while support for carbon capture technology and environmental justice provisions are also gaining political traction.

That public works bill is likely to include low-carbon energy elements, including electric vehicle provisions, environmental justice investments and a national clean energy standard, according to climate advocates like Jamal Raad, co-founder and executive director of Evergreen Action.

Unlike a carbon tax, which would set a cost for carbon emissions from oil, gas, coal and other industrial sources, a national clean energy standard would require utilities to ratchet up the percentage of zero-carbon electricity until reaching 100 percent of the power they distribute.

As of last year, 29 states had clean energy standards, setting their own goals for getting an increasing share of their electricity from low- or zero-carbon sources.

Critically, Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.V., who has long opposed a carbon tax, has signaled an openness to a national clean energy standard.

Under Biden, the EPA has not revived the Clean Power Plan despite the recent court ruling, and it does not plan to do so, Goffman wrote in his memo.

“As a practical matter, the reinstatement of the [Clean Power Plan] would not make sense,” he wrote. “Ongoing changes in electricity generation mean that the emission reduction goals that the [Clean Power Plan] set for 2030 have already been achieved.”

Regan, the nominee for EPA administrator, indicated at his Feb. 3 confirmation hearing that the agency would likely start anew following the January court ruling, which tossed out the Trump-era rule, dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy rule, or ACE.

“The reality is that it presents a significant opportunity for the Environmental Protection Agency to take a clean slate and look at how we best move forward,” Regan told Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V.

The Environment and Public Works Committee advanced his nomination to the full Senate by a 14-6 vote on Feb. 9.

At the same hearing he told Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., he had spoken to Jennifer M. Granholm, Biden’s pick for Energy secretary, about trapping emissions from heavy industry with “carbon capture” technology.

“There are lots of resources that we can pour in terms of research and development to make sure that carbon capture, sequestration and storage is on the table,” Regan said.

Falling emissions

Domestic greenhouse gas emissions dropped 10.3 percent in 2020, according to preliminary figures from Rhodium Group.

“That is the single largest drop in annual emissions in the post-World War II era, outpacing the Great Recession of 2009 when emissions dipped 6.3%,” the research organization said in a note last month.

Asked on Feb. 9 at an Energy and Commerce hearing about a clean energy standard, Christy Goldfuss, former managing director at the Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration, said she supported a clean energy standard and endorsed the idea of significant investment in low-income neighborhoods.

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“Congress now has the opportunity to use every tool in its toolbox to tackle climate in the economy, including but not limited to a clean energy standard, a clean energy and sustainability accelerator that targets 40 percent of investments to disadvantaged communities,” said Goldfuss, who now works on environmental issues at the Center for American Progress, the left-leaning think tank.

That 40 percent figure is in line with a Senate resolution (S Res 43) Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced last week as a blueprint for pandemic recovery and a climate-and-employment agenda. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., introduced the House version (H Res 104).

Prompted by Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., about a federal carbon tax, Goldfuss said a carbon price would omit some pollution sectors and has proven politically untenable.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to start with an economy-wide carbon tax,” she said. “It does not reach certain sectors like the transportation sector.”

Roughly during the changeover between the Obama and Trump administrations, emissions from transportation surpassed electricity emissions to become the No. 1 source of carbon pollution in the U.S.

Forecasters at the Energy Information Administration, a division of the Energy Department, expect transportation emissions to rise through 2050.

Ethan Howland contributed to this report.

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