Trump EPA overhauls Obama-era regulations for coal-fired power plants

The Trump administration announced new plans Tuesday to roll back and replace Obama-era regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants – a move praised by the coal industry as a job saver but panned by critics as a green-light to polluters. 

The newly unveiled Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule, as it’s called, would give states broad authority to determine how to restrict carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. It’s meant as a replacement to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that sought to speed up the closure of coal-burning power plants and cut back on greenhouse gases by cutting carbon dioxide emissions and encouraging utilities to invest in cleaner energy sources like wind and solar.

“The ACE Rule would restore the rule of law and empower states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide modern, reliable, and affordable energy for all Americans,” Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “Today’s proposal provides the states and regulated community the certainty they need to continue environmental progress while fulfilling President Trump’s goal of energy dominance.”

The effort is part of Trump’s overall bid to roll back regulations and help the struggling coal sector in particular. He is likely to highlight the plan at a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday evening.

While the Obama administration and Democrats saw the Clean Power Plan as a crucial component in international efforts to curb global warming, Republicans have long claimed those regulations went too far and were too costly. From the start of President Trump’s administration, his Environmental Protection Agency has been working to overhaul the program.  

“An important part of what we are doing here is getting us back in our lane -- we believe the CPP went beyond the EPA's legal authority in many ways,” EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum said during a press call on Tuesday. “We think we are on very firm legal ground -- much more so than the CPP was.”

Without making a specific reference to the EPA proposal, Trump tweeted Tuesday that he’s “done so much for West Virginia” as he teased the rally, adding: “CLEAN COAL!!!!”

The new plan would let states set performance standards for existing coal-fired power plants, providing them with a list of “candidate technologies” that can be used to draft their plans. The proposal would let states relax pollution rules for power plants that need upgrades, according to a summary reviewed by The Associated Press.

Tuesday’s announcement was slammed by top Democrats and numerous environmental activists as a “desperate attempt” to save the flagging coal industry.

"The proposed rollback of life-saving clean air and climate safeguards is unacceptable and exposes Wheeler’s EPA as a puppet of the very coal executives who used to sign his paychecks and want to pollute with impunity," Patrick Grenter, a Pennsylvania official with the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “This is another desperate attempt by the Trump Administration to prop up the dirty and obsolete coal industry, but it won’t work.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called ACE “a brazen special interest handout” in a statement. 

The EPA projects that the overhaul of the Clean Power Plan could cut regulatory compliance costs by up to $400 million per year, while also reducing CO2 emissions.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from the coal state of Kentucky, praised the Trump administration’s move, while taking aim at the Clean Power Plan.

“This so-called ‘Clean Power Plan’ they dreamed up would’ve had no meaningful effect on global emissions,” McConnell said in a statement. “It would, however, have packed up middle-class American jobs and sent them overseas.”

The EPA plans to hold a public hearing and accept public comment on the proposal for another two months.

Combined with a planned rollback of car-mileage standards, the plan represents a significant shift from Obama efforts to fight global warming and shift away from coal and toward less-polluting energy sources such as natural gas, wind and solar power. Trump has already vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement.

Obama's plan was designed to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The rule dictated specific emission targets for states based on power-plant emissions and gave officials broad latitude to decide how to achieve reductions.

The Supreme Court put the plan on hold in 2016 following a legal challenge by industry and coal-friendly states, an order that remains in effect.

Even so, the Obama plan has been a factor in a wave of retirements of coal-fired plants, which also are being squeezed by lower costs for natural gas and renewable power and state mandates that promote energy conservation.

Fox News' Jennifer Bowman and Judson Berger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.