California sues to block weaker air pollution rules
Trump’s plan will increase smog and worsen climate change, 22 states say
California and 21 other states on Tuesday sued the Trump administration in an attempt to overturn its new rules on pollution from power plants, which the states described as an illegal giveaway to the coal industry that would worsen smog and climate change.
“The federal plan is trying to reverse the progress that California and other states are making, and to keep the oldest and dirtiest power plants in the country on life support,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board.
The plan is the latest in a long series of efforts by the Trump administration to rewrite the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws, from the Clean Air Act to the Endangered Species Act.
“This is not just about fighting Donald Trump,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom at a news conference in Sacramento Tuesday. “This is about our kids and our grandkids. This is about clean air, clean water and endangered species. I’ll say it. I kind of miss Richard Nixon.”
Nixon, a Republican, signed the Clean Air Act in
1970 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and also created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In June, the EPA released a series of regulations that EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, called the “Affordable Clean Energy” rule.
The rule essentially gutted a plan put out in 2015 by the Obama administration that was a centerpiece of Obama’s efforts to reduce smog and greenhouse gas emissions by cracking down on aging coal-fired power plants. Officials from the coal industry made overturning it a top priority.
Because of decades of air pollution regulations, California has no coal-fired power plants. It relies instead on cleaner sources, including natural gas, hydroelectric dams, solar, wind, geothermal and nuclear energy to generate electricity for homes and businesses.
A new report out Monday showed that 52% of California’s electricity in 2017 came from sources like solar, wind, hydropower and nuclear energy that don’t emit greenhouse gases.
That trend is driven by nearly 20 years of California laws aimed at reducing climate change, the most recent of which was a law signed last year by former Gov. Jerry Brown requiring 60% of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030, and 100% to be “carbon free” by 2045.
Still, Nichols noted that pollution from other states’ dirty power plants affects California.
Not only do emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels like coal contribute to global warming, she said, they also affect the power supply in neighboring states, which receive some of their electricity from high-voltage lines that span hundreds of miles between states.
“We are part of a region, we are part of a regionwide grid,” she said. “We are part of a national system.”
Even if it survives the latest legal challenge, the Trump plan is not likely to save the coal industry. Coal consumption in the United States peaked in 2007 and has fallen 39% since then because of competition from cheaper natural gas, much of it generated by fracking, and falling prices for solar and wind power,
Coal now provides only 27% of U.S. electricity, down from 52% in 1997. And the trend is accelerating. More coal plants closed during Trump’s first two years in office than during Obama’s first four years, according to the Department of Energy.
“We see where the world is going, where the future lies,” Newsom said Tuesday. “We are anticipating it. We are preparing for it.”
Joining California on Tuesday in the lawsuit were Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.
The EPA on Tuesday declined comment about the lawsuit.
“Their lawsuit today will ultimately fail at the Supreme Court,” Patrick Morrisey, attorney general of West Virginia, the nation’s second-largest coal producing state, said in a post on Twitter. “The Clean Air Act and the Constitution doesn’t allow EPA to serve as a national energy planning authority.”
The original Obama plan aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. Obama officials described it as a key tactic for the United States to meet its goals under the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, which Trump announced in 2017 he would be withdrawing from.
The Obama plan required states to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by making older power plants more efficient; by building more solar, wind and other renewable energy sources; by joining multistate capand-trade programs; and by replacing coal-fired electricity with cleaner sources, such as electricity generated from natural gas-fired power plants.
The Obama EPA estimated the rule would cut smog and reduce asthma attacks in children and prevent 3,600 premature deaths a year from exposure to soot.
But after the plan’s rollout, 27 states, led by Oklahoma, filed a lawsuit to overturn it.
The Supreme Court agreed, and ruled 5-4 in 2016 to temporarily halt enforcement of the plan while the lawsuits played out in lower courts.
After Trump’s election, he called the plan “a jobkilling regulation” and appointed former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to run the EPA. Pruitt began work to overturn and replace the plan before he resigned last year amid controversies over conflicts of interest, flying first class at taxpayer expense and other issues. Pruitt became a lobbyist for the coal industry after leaving office.
When the new Trump plan was finalized June 19, the EPA called it a “reasonable program focused on potential upgrades to coal plants” that “leaves the market alone and doesn’t pick winners and losers.”
The Trump plan gives states more leeway to set rules, and focuses most attention on improving the efficiency of individual power plants, rather than on broader state targets, which will allow older coal plants to stay open. It requires power plant emissions to be cut only a small amount — between 0.7% and 1.5% — by 2030.
The states that sued Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, argued that the Trump plan violates the federal Clean Air Act because it does not meaningfully reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and because it does not use the best available technology, which the act requires.
“Because we’re prepared to confront the climate crisis head-on, we’re prepared to confront President Trump head-on in court,” said Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general.
President Trump’s plan gives states leeway to set rules, focusing attention on improving the efficiency of individual power plants.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, left, flanked by Gov. Gavin Newsom, discusses the lawsuit the state has joined in with 21other Democrat-led states on Tuesday.
Smoke rises from a coal-fired power plant in Romeoville, Illinois. President Trump has called former President Obama’s clean energy plan “a job-killing regulation.”