What the EPA's Repeal of the Clean Power Plan Means for Texas

Texas has long been known for bucking at anything that even smells like an environmental regulation, so it might be easy to think that the latest round of repealing and relaxing rules issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency would not affect the state.

The truth, as is so often the case, is a bit more complicated than that. First, there's the Clean Power Plan.

On Monday night EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — the former Oklahoma attorney general who had a fondness for suing the EPA that was downright Texan — announced he would repeal the Clean Power Plan, a crucial policy written by the Obama administration to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in Texas and across the country. The Clean Power Plan, completed in 2015, would have pushed states to move away from coal in favor of energy sources that produced fewer carbon emissions.

Pruitt's announcement has disappointed environmentalists, while industry leaders, particularly those in the coal business, have been over the moon.

The plan has been contentious from the beginning. Texas, along with 26 other states and hundreds of private entities, sued the EPA within days after the regulations were unveiled in 2015, arguing that the federal agency had overstepped its authority with the ambitious new regulations.

The U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and issued a stay on implementing the regulations pending review by the federal courts, but instead of waiting on a decision from the courts, Pruitt made clear on Monday night that the EPA is going to start untangling the complex web of rules the agency created to put the Clean Power Plan into action in the first place.

“The war on coal is over,” Pruitt said that evening from Hazard, Kentucky. “Tomorrow in Washington, D.C., I will be signing a proposed rule to roll back the Clean Power Plan."

Still, everybody knew this was coming. President Donald Trump has made clear he is interested in gutting just about anything that was cooked up during the Obama administration, with a particular focus on the environmental regulations created in an effort to combat global warming. But at the same time, it's troubling for those who have been pushing for years to get the United States on a path toward being less environmentally devastating.

Killing the Clean Power Plan makes it increasingly unlikely that the United States will be able to fulfill its obligations under the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement to cut back on emissions that are helping to warm the planet and increase sea levels. A leaked draft of the repeal proposal claims the country could save more than $30 billion by not complying with the rules, while dismissing the health problems that studies indicate are caused by carbon emissions.

The impact on Texas is a bit more nuanced than that.

People living in Houston and across Texas are used to residing alongside pollution.
People living in Houston and across Texas are used to residing alongside pollution.
Photo by Daniel Kramer

If the Clean Power Plan had gone into effect as it was envisioned by EPA regulators, it would have required states to lower carbon emissions by 2030 to one-third of the 2005 emission levels. This would have been difficult across the board, but it would be particularly challenging in Texas. Why? Because 18 percent of the emissions reductions nationwide would have to come directly from the Lone Star State. Texas is the top consumer of electricity and holds the dubious honor of leading the nation in the sheer amount of carbon emissions.

The thing is, while Texas still uses a large amount of coal, we've been moving away from coal in favor of natural gas in recent years, because of the glut of natural gas unlocked from shale plays across the state, making it a cheaper fuel source. Even though Texas officials never had any intention of going along with the Clean Power Plan — they never even came up with a plan of their own to comply with its rules — Texas actually has been reducing emissions levels simply because of the changes in industry forces that have made coal less sexy, compared to cheap natural gas and the rapid growth of wind and solar energy markets.

But the repeal is still a blow, environmentalists say.

“In order to stave off global superstorms like Harvey, we need to dramatically reduce emissions and we need every tool in the toolbox to tackle that,” Luke Metzger, head of Environment Texas, says. “The Clean Power Plan was the best tool, the most crucial rule implemented so far to help reduce carbon emissions. It's definitely a step backwards.”

Ultimately, this means Texas won't be directly affected by the plan's repeal. But the impact could be felt down the road, if the market changes and natural gas becomes more expensive, or renewable sources such as solar and wind stop getting the tax breaks that have helped those industries gain an unexpected amount of traction in Texas.

"For Texas and other states not taking climate policy seriously on their own, the bottom line is that the Clean Power Plan would have been a backstop," Daniel Cohan, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Rice University, says. "If the situation had changed, the Clean Power Plan would have kept states like Texas and West Virginia from having a major swing back to coal. It would have forced us to keep our emissions down."

Meanwhile, the Clean Power Plan has been getting all the attention, but a new haze rule (drastically revised from the one vetted last December to give power plants so much leeway that it's like there's no rule at all) issued by the EPA should have people in Texas concerned, because the rule would only have mattered to Texas. "The Clean Power Plan was tied up in courts and wouldn't have gone into effect until 2030, but the haze rule would have forced immediate action at many of our oldest and dirtiest coal power plants," Cohan says.

Almost every other state has its own rule regarding emissions that cause haze. Texas now has a rule of its own too, but the rule allows power plants to pursue "alternatives," including a new cap-and-trade emissions credit program. The end result will allow coal power plants to chug out double the current amount of sulfur dioxide at their plants without violating EPA rules.

The path to repeal a rule is a long, drawn-out process — it will take more than a year, most likely, to fully undo the Clean Power Plan, even though it was never actually implemented — but in lieu of that, the EPA's approach to the haze rule shows how the agency, under Trump, is approaching things. It would take forever to do away with all the rules and regulations from the Obama administration, so it appears EPA officials are simply loosening the rules to the point where they technically exist but are essentially useless, in addition to the efforts to repeal other regulations. And in Texas, where state regulatory standards on the environment are not exactly stringent, that is going to have more implications as time goes by.

However, Metzger still has hope for the future, environmentally speaking. Companies are retiring two coal-powered plants in Texas not because of regulations, but because cheap natural gas has made the cost of burning coal too high.

On top of that, wind and solar energy are producing more of the state's electric industry. Houston — the beating heart of the oil industry — is now the largest purchaser of renewable energy in the country, Metzger says. "We're making advances, and it all adds up," he says. "If we can do this in Texas, of all places, we can do this anywhere in the world."

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