The General James M. Gavin coal plant in southeast Ohio. Credit: Analog Kid / Creative Commons

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Citing the administration’s own analysis, environmental advocates say the Clean Power Plan replacement will ‘make things worse.’

Ohioans likely face more early deaths, more asthma attacks and higher electric bills under the Trump administration’s plan to replace the Clean Power Plan, say environmental groups. Those conclusions come from the Environmental Protection Agency’s own analysis of the proposal, they add.

And while the plan could help the state’s coal industry, at least temporarily, it could cost Ohio jobs and growth in other sectors. Meanwhile, it’s debatable how much  greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced while emissions of other pollutants could increase.

“Trump’s EPA is proposing to replace the Clean Power Plan with a ‘Dirty Power Scam’ — a do-nothing proposal that will actually make things worse,” said Dan Sawmiller, Ohio energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Three years ago, the EPA justified the Clean Power Plan by showing health and economic benefits substantially outweighed the costs. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has proposed repealing that rule even as the agency’s own analysis finds it would fall far short of the 2015 plan.

“By the Administration’s own analysis, the new rules will cause more premature deaths per year, and lead to dirtier air causing thousands of additional cases of asthma and respiratory illness across the country,” said attorney Miranda Leppla at the Ohio Environmental Council.

Clean?

The analysis by EPA explains that the proposed rule “is designed to affect emissions of CO2 from the [electricity] sector, but will also influence the level of other pollutants… that adversely affect human health.” Those include increases in particulates, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

“Because this rollback will lead to more pollution and dirtier air, there will be a rise in upper respiratory problems, bronchitis, and asthma that will result in more missed days at work and missed school days for our children,” Leppla added. “The economic costs are a direct contrast to the economic benefits we would see as a country if we invested in renewables that deliver clean air benefits to our communities.”

Nationwide, the death toll from the proposed rule could be up to 1,400 more deaths per year. The estimate, however, does not account for deaths related to climate change impacts, including the projected increase in the intensity and frequency of severe storms, heat waves and other extreme weather.

It’s hard to know exactly what the health consequences of the new rule would be for Ohio. A 2015 analysis by the Ohio Environmental Council showed that the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards would avoid at least 2,820 premature deaths by 2029.

However, the future of those standards is uncertain, and opponents of them have cited uncertainty over the 2015 Clean Power Plan as a reason to freeze and roll back their requirements. Those standards resumed last year after a two-year freeze, but another bill is now pending to make the renewable energy standards voluntary.

“Unfortunately, the Ohio legislature is still stuck in the past, debating our energy standards for the sixth year in a row,” Leppla said, “while Ohio’s businesses and citizens independently recognize both the economic and health benefits of turning to clean energy.”

Affordable?

Trump and Wheeler’s plan “is neither clean nor affordable,” said analyst Rama Zakaria at the Environmental Defense Fund.

The 2015 Clean Power Plan gave states flexibility in choosing how they would comply with emission reductions targets. In contrast, Trump’s power plan is “pretty rigid,” Zakaria said. “The state would have to do capital improvements at existing power plants to improve the heat rate.”

It’s unclear what actual requirements would be imposed on power plants, she added. And although Trump has touted “clean coal” in the past, the proposed replacement plan says “nothing about clean coal, just making the existing coal units more efficient,” Zakaria said.

Clean coal generally refers to the use of carbon capture and storage technologies that would cut the greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution from coal. Focusing only on the efficiency rate could actually increase emissions, because plants’ per unit fuel costs would drop, she noted.

“A coal plant that operates more efficiently may be called upon to run more hours, increasing the total amount of C02 emitted overall,” Sawmiller agreed. “The proposal acknowledges the possibility of this ‘rebound effect.’”

Yet instead of trying to prevent it, “EPA proposes a loophole to encourage it,” he continued. The plan would change the New Source Review program so that plant upgrades to comply wouldn’t trigger other requirements calling for that technology to be as clean as possible.

Meanwhile, renewable energy costs have been coming down so fast that they will still likely be cheaper than coal by 2020, according to a report released earlier this year by the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Trump’s plan could keep coal plants open longer and draw investments away from cleaner options, Zakaria noted.

Jobs in Ohio’s fast-growing energy efficiency and renewable energy sectors are also “in the crosshairs,” Sawmiller said. In contrast, it’s doubtful how the plan could bring back coal industry jobs lost because of automation and other technology advances.

“Since President Trump is cozy with Murray Energy, we also expect to see him continuing to press for bailouts for coal plants at the federal level,” Leppla added. “Whether he is successful remains to be seen.”

If that happens, added costs to keep FirstEnergy’s six coal and nuclear plants running would come to about $2 billion, said Sonia Aggarwal of Energy Innovation, a clean energy research group in San Francisco. That’s an average of more than $300,000 per plant. “It’s not tough math.”

Afterward, the communities hosting those plants would still face the dilemma of finding other sources for jobs, tax revenue and development once they were no longer supported, she noted. “There’s clearly something better that we could be doing with the funds,” Aggarwal said.

EPA will accept comments on its proposed “Affordable Clean Energy” rule for 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register. It’s unclear how swiftly the agency will act to issue a final rule after that.

“We certainly expect to see legal challenges at the federal level over this rule,” Leppla said. Additional legal battles between states likely as well, she noted.

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.