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Trump administration rolls back coal rules

Acting US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Andrew Wheeler has announced a proposal to roll back power plant carbon emission standards, set in 2015 under the Obama government.
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The US EPA is proposing relaxed emissions controls for new coal-fired power plants

Henry Lazenby in Vancouver

The EPA's proposal seeks to replace the previous regulations that had required lowered carbon dioxide emissions from new, modified and reconstructed coal-fired power plants.

The previous standard set a limit for new plants of no more than 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (MWh).

According to the EPA, the revised standards would allow those plants to emit up to 1,900lbs of carbon dioxide per MWh, eliminating any incentive for them to reduce emissions by taking steps such as installing carbon capture and storage - a step change from the previous standard.

"Consistent with president Trump's executive order promoting energy independence, EPA's proposal would rescind excessive burdens on America's energy providers and level the playing field so that new energy technologies can be a part of America's future," said Wheeler.

"By replacing onerous regulations with high, yet achievable, standards, we can continue America's historic energy production, keep energy prices affordable, and encourage new investments in cutting-edge technology that can then be exported around the world."

But non-governmental organisation Union of Concerned Scientists policy director Rachel Cleetus did not mince her words in response to the announcement

"Today's announcement is yet another doomed attempt by the Trump administration to prop up the coal industry. Make no mistake, despite the rhetoric that accompanied today's announcement, this has nothing to do with promoting the public interest."

She added: "… this is an especially galling move, coming on the heels of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, an authoritative scientific report from 13 federal agencies, including the EPA, which documents the toll that climate impacts are already taking on our economy, infrastructure and health - a toll which will worsen as heat-trapping emissions rise."

Lower hurdle

The EPA contends the proposed new rule will not result in any significant carbon dioxide emissions changes or costs.

"By revising the NSPS, the EPA will protect the environment while helping to provide room for American energy production to continue to grow and diversify, which is critical for long-term energy security and global competitiveness goals."

The EPA's new source performance standards does away with the previous standard's requirement for affected coal-fired power plants to use carbon capture and storage at new coal plants - a technology critically important to achieving emissions reductions but not yet available at a broad and cost-effective scale, according to the environmental authority.

The EPA suggested high efficiency, low emissions (HELE) coal technologies, in contrast, were making a difference around the world right now.

"Higher penetration of off-the-shelf HELE technologies - such as supercritical and ultra-supercritical combustion - in our own coal fleet could bring great leaps forward in efficiency, producing far more power from far less coal," the EPA-affiliated Count on Coal campaign wrote in a blog post Thursday.

Analysis from the World Coal Association had shown that improving the efficiency of the global coal fleet from 33-40% with available HELE technology would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 14-21%, a reduction equivalent to all of India's energy-related carbon emissions.

Despite some fiery rhetoric from president Donald Trump in support of the domestic coal industry, there is currently only a single coal-fire plant under construction, with several other projects mothballed. The industry had seen a slew of ageing plant closures over the past four years totalling 33.7 gigawatts.

The ailing US thermal coal industry expects to see up to 11.4GW of coal-fired powerplant capacity being taken off line in 2018. This is set to worsen as a report from S&P Global Market Intelligence expects US power producers to take at least another 19.8GW of coal-fired power plant capacity offline between 2018 and 2022.

Moody's Investors Service forecast that some 35GW of capacity from coal and nuclear plants was now scheduled to be shut down over the next five years.