US court blocks rollback of power plant emissions rule

Article by Amanda Doyle

A US court has vacated a rule brought in by the Trump administration that relaxed regulations on coal-fired power plant emissions.

The Obama administration enacted the Clean Power Plan (CPP) in 2015, which aimed to reduce emissions from the power sector and increase renewable power generation. However, the CPP never went into effect and the Trump administration replaced it with the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule in 2019. The ACE rule didn't require any specific emissions reductions targets, would have allowed states to regulate emissions themselves, and extended the timescale required for power plants to comply with regulations.

The ACE rule was based on the Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reinterpreting the 1970 Clean Air Act to mean that emissions reduction strategies could only be applied directly at existing power plants, for example retrofitting technologies that would improve efficiency. The EPA claimed that it did not have the authority to enforce emissions reductions through other means such as using alternative fuels as was suggested as part of the CPP. The ACE rule also only applied to coal-fired plants and did not consider emissions from other types of fossil fuel plants. The EPA  acknowledged that improving the efficiency of a coal-fired plant could actually lead to increased emissions from individual plants, but found that the risk of increased emissions was irrelevant.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit made a ruling on 19 January – the last day of Donald Trump’s presidency – that found that the EPA did not act lawfully in adopting the ACE rule. The three-judge panel did not reinstate the CPP but vacated the ACE rule and sent it back to the EPA for reconsideration.

The EPA’s main argument for introducing the ACE rule was that under the Clean Air Act, the federal government didn’t have the authority to set national restrictions on emissions and could only apply the regulations directly at a power plant. However, the Clean Air Act does require the EPA to work on regulating emissions from new and existing power plants, and the judges called the EPA’s conclusion a “tortured series of misreadings” of the law. The EPA relied on a different interpretation of the grammar, such as replacing prepositions, and also inferred different meanings from the Act.

“The EPA rewrites rather than reads the plain statutory text,” the judges said in the ruling. “The EPA’s position depends critically on words that are not there.”

“Policy priorities may change from one administration to the next, but statutory text changes only when it is amended. [The EPA] may not shirk its responsibility by imagining new limitations that the plain language of the statute does not clearly require.”

On the extension of the timescale for power plants to comply with the regulations in the ACE rule, the judges said that “upon reading the rule’s explanation of the deadline extensions, one would have no idea that the EPA actually recognised that greenhouse gas pollution was causing a global climate crisis requiring urgent remediation.”

“The EPA offered what is at best a radically incomplete explanation for extending the compliance timeline. It offered undeveloped reasons of administrative convenience and regulatory symmetry, even as it ignored the environmental and public health effects of the Rule’s compliance slowdown.”

According to The New York Times, the ruling will allow the Biden administration to immediately start to work on reducing emissions from the power sector. If the ACE had been allowed to stay in place it would have made it difficult for the new administration to set new standards for the power industry due to the restrictive interpretation of the Clean Air Act. The new administration now won’t have to lose time undoing the ACE rule and President Joe Biden has already ordered federal agencies to start work to undo the rollbacks and weakening of climate laws that occurred under the Trump administration.

Ben Levitan, Senior Attorney at EDF, said: “[This] decision […] confirms that the Trump administration’s dubious attempt to get rid of commonsense limits on climate pollution from power plants was illegal, it reaffirms that the Clean Air Act and the Endangerment Finding are the law of the land, and it restores the vibrancy of the rule of law. Now we can turn to the critically important work of protecting Americans from climate change and creating new clean energy jobs.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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