Why Killing Obama’s Clean Power Plan Is No Simple Task

The Trump administration is working toward repealing these burdensome regulations — but faces legal challenges

This month marks the end of the formal public comment period on the current administration’s proposal to repeal an overarching environmental regulation, which critics contend would add substantial costs to electricity.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced in October it intended to repeal the so-called Clean Power Plan, proposed by Barack Obama’s administration. The fact that this has not yet been accomplished shows that, unlike flipping a light switch, changing the way the federal government regulates that light is not so simple or easy.

And whether EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt simply repeals the plan or tries to replace it with different rules, the administration faces near-certain litigation. David Doniger, director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Program, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that environmentalists are likely to challenge any effort to move away from Obama’s approach to climate change.

Doniger even questioned the January 16 deadline for accepting public comments. He said the Trump administration has not yet held all of the three public hearings it promised — and that federal law requires at least 30 days of comment after the last hearing.

“This story is a long way from being over, and when it is, we’ll see them in court,” he said on the call, which was organized by the Federalist Society.

Doniger argued the EPA is “misrepresenting how the power plants operate in the real world, and cooking the books on the science and the economics.”

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He added, “If the administration finalizes the proposed repeal, he’ll be in clear violation of the Clean Air Act, and the regulated industry is not going to have a very clear idea of what is expected of them in the future. Same goes for the potential replacement proposal.”

Doniger argued the EPA is “misrepresenting how the power plants operate in the real world, and cooking the books on the science and the economics.”

The Clean Power Plan has had a torturous history. It would have forced reductions in greenhouse gases by requiring power companies to switch to cleaner fuels, improve technology, or buy credits from other utility companies.

The Obama administration proposed it in 2015, as part of an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. A group of plaintiffs challenged the rules in October 2015, claiming the administration exceeded its authority. The Supreme Court in February 2016 took the extraordinary step of blocking the administration from implementing the plan until a final resolution of the lawsuit.

All of this may seem an abstraction of lawyers and bureaucrats, statutes and regulations. But how the battle plays out has the potential to increase the cost of electricity — perhaps dramatically.

H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow on environmental policy at the Illinois-based Heartland Institute, a conservative and libertarian think tank that favors free-market solutions, cited studies suggesting that electric bills could rise by 15 to 20 percent. He disputed the $8 billion cost that Obama’s EPA estimated the plan would cost.

“Every other group that looked at the Clean Power Plan except the EPA said it would cost far more than $8 billion,” he told LifeZette.

Related: Why It’s Wise for Trump’s EPA to Rescind Obama’s Clean Power Plan

Tom Lorenzen, a lawyer who represents the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in its challenge to the Clean Power Plan, said on the Federalist Society conference call that the utility industry already has shifted, to a large extent, to other fuel sources voluntarily or in response to state regulation. He said it has allowed the United States to make it more than halfway toward the 32 percent carbon emission cuts without federal regulation — and without much increase in cost to consumers.

“But it’s the next set of shifts that become incrementally more expensive,” he said.

Doniger, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, cited the Obama-era EPA study indicating that benefits from the Clean Power Plan — from mitigating the risk of climate change to reducing ozone pollution by reducing other contaminants released from coal plants — would total $50 billion.

He argued electricity bills would actually decline as a result of consumers’ switching to more energy-efficient appliances.

“It’s very, very hard to make the case that the Clean Power Plan was an overly ambitious reach,” said Doniger.

Thomas Richard, editor of Climate Change Dispatch, pointed to congressional testimony from Obama EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that the Clean Power Plan would have an infinitesimally small impact on global climate change.

“It was a symbolic gesture to shut down coal plants, shut down coal companies, without doing anything for the environment,” he said.

Burnett said environmental regulations are a “regressive tax on the poor” who are least able to absorb increased costs. As to the argument that government mandates actually would reduce consumer costs, he said that’s not been the case with past regulation.

Related: Five Great Ways Trump Shook Up Washington in 2017

“Every time they upgrade those standards, the cost of those products go up,” he said.

Burnett said that if he had his way, he would rescind the Clean Power Plan and replace it with nothing.

“My take — I think most would agree — [is that] just like with Obamacare, we didn’t want repeal and replace; we wanted to see repeal,” he said.

The Trump administration has indicated, however, that it will consider new rules. This may be easier to defend in court, since the EPA already had made a determination that climate gases pose a danger.

Burnett conceded that makes new regulation likely. “We are opposed to that. We think they should just scrap the Clean Power Plan and focus on true pollutants,” he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter here.

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