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President Donald Trump has made a habit of undoing his predecessor's accomplishments, especially environmental regulations. Now, his EPA has replaced the only rule meant to limit greenhouse gas emissions — and potentially caused the death of thousands of people in the process.
Speaking to a crowd full of coal miners in uniform Wednesday morning, EPA Administrator and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler announced a replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce CO2 levels from energy production by a third by 2030. The Trump administration’s new plan, called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, stipulates that, to reduce emissions, coal-fired plants just need to get more efficient.
“Unlike the Clean Power Plan, ACE [the Affordable Clean Energy rule] adheres to the Clean Air Act and gives states the regulatory certainty they need to continue to reduce emissions and provide a dependable, diverse supply of electricity that all Americans can afford,” Wheeler said at the press conference.
But according to the EPA’s own analysis, the increased air pollution could result in as many as 1,400 deaths per year by 2030 and 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems. Federal data has also shown that the air is getting dirtier: Last year had 15 percent more days with dirty air than the average between 2013 and 2016. And since the Clean Power Plan was proposed in 2014, the evidence that climate change will kill people has only mounted. The World Health Organization estimates that 250,000 people will die per year between 2030 and 2050.
But the Trump administration apparently doesn’t see the potential effects. “I think our CO2 output is either flat or down in a growing economy,” Trump’s Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said at Wednesday’s press conference. Carbon emissions, in fact, spiked in the U.S. last year.
Trump has repeatedly promised to bring back “beautiful, clean coal” and announced he’d replace the Clean Power Plan shortly after he took office. Although the administration might prefer to scrap Obama’s rule altogether and not come up with a replacement, officials can’t do that. The EPA is required to regulate climate-heating carbon emissions, which the agency has defined as a pollutant. The administration can weaken the Obama-era rule, but the EPA has to put forward some sort of regulation on carbon emissions.
“Even now that communities around the country are struggling more and more with the effects of climate change, we have the Trump EPA announcing the replacement of the Clean Power Plan with the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule,” said Ellen Kurlansky, who served as an air policy analyst and adviser at the EPA until 2017. “This rule will do nothing to protect us from climate change.”
The Affordable Clean Energy rule attempts to curb emissions by making coal-fired power plants more efficient, but the new rule could, in fact, result in an increase in emissions from the energy sector, according to former EPA officials. The increase in efficiency at those plants will allow them to produce more power and run more, which will, in turn, allow the grid to draw more energy from them. That means they’ll stay open for longer — rather than being replaced with renewables.
“Rather than do what is necessary to move forward and protect public health, this rule is effectively doing nothing,” said Janet McCabe, the former acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at the EPA, who helped craft the Clean Power Plan.
Put forward in 2014, Obama’s Clean Power Plan was never implemented. After several rounds of state-level lawsuits, the Supreme Court put a stay on the regulation. EPA chief Wheeler claimed Wednesday that the high court ruled that the Clean Power Plan was illegal, but that’s not quite the case: The justices sent the policy back to a lower court for review, and the Trump administration worked to keep the rule stayed for as long as possible while working on its own version.
The heart of the debate of legality of the Clean Power Plan is about an interpretation of the Clean Air Act, the law that allows the EPA to regulate air pollution. Obama administration officials thought the act allowed them to regulate the electric grid as a system; the Trump administration has argued that, instead, the act only allows regulation at specific power plants.
“It’s a classic ideological exercise in the sense that this EPA and this administration thinks that government action, and any government action, is the biggest problem,” said Joe Goffman, the executive director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School and the former EPA associate assistant administrator for Climate. “That’s the problem that has to be solved, not the problem of climate change.”
While Wheeler, the mastermind of the change, may be a less scandalous and paranoid character than Scott Pruitt, Trump’s former head of the EPA, Wheeler’s still pushing an aggressive deregulatory agenda. Up until two years ago, he served as a lobbyist with Murray Energy, one of the country’s biggest coal companies.
“Wheeler has spent the vast majority of his professional career representing specific economic interests,” said Goffman. “That’s the coal companies and the high-polluting industrial industries.”
“He’s come to these positions as though he were still advocating for specific interests,” he added.
Cover image: In this Aug. 23, 2018 photo, American Electric Power’s John Amos coal-fired plant in Winfield, W.Va, is seen from an apartment complex in the town of Poca across the Kanawha River. (AP Photo/John Raby)