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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


Abdicating, Again, on Climate

The contrast could not have been more pronounced. On Tuesday, New York’s governor and legislative leaders agreed on an aggressive program to eliminate by midcentury emissions of most of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. The very next day, the Trump administration repudiated yet another of former President Barack Obama’s initiatives aimed at reducing those same emissions. One day, Albany seizes a commanding role in the fight against climate change. The next, Washington scuttles from the field of battle, abandoning any pretense of taking seriously this most pressing of global issues.

In 2017, at a campaign stop in Huntsville, Ala., President Trump pledged to make Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan “boom, gone.” And so it was on Wednesday, when Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who now runs the Environmental Protection Agency, unveiled a lily-livered replacement plan called the Affordable Clean Energy rule. The Obama rule, which contained strict emissions limits, would have forced the closing of many of America’s old coal-fired power plants; made new ones impossible without advanced technology; and significantly reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

The Trump rule, by contrast, asks little of the coal industry, will keep some plants in business and will save jobs. But not for much longer. The industry is already on life support, battered by market forces — cheaper natural gas, the rapid growth in renewable fuels — and by intense public pressure from the likes of Michael Bloomberg, who recently pledged $500 million of his fortune to moving the electric power industry away from all fossil fuels, not just coal but natural gas.

Left to his own devices, Mr. Trump would simply have killed the Obama plan and been done with it. But he couldn’t. As a result of a Supreme Court decision in 2007, Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, and a later administrative action known as the endangerment finding, the E.P.A. is obliged to regulate carbon dioxide emissions under the Clean Air Act. What the new rule does is redefine how tough the agency will be in carrying out that duty.

The Obama administration interpreted its authority under the act ambitiously. Its Clean Power Plan set state-by-state emissions limits and authorized states and utilities to engage in a range of strategies to meet those targets — capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground, emissions trading, fuel switching (replacing coal with cleaner natural gas and with renewables like wind and solar) — anything to wean their economies off coal and diversify the energy supply. The Trump plan jettisons the state limits and asks only for modest retrofits at individual plants.

To put it simply: The Obama plan would have encouraged imaginative thinking and new approaches. The Trump plan plugs leaks. (Perversely, it could also in some cases increase emissions by making power plants more efficient and therefore able to run longer.)

Mr. Wheeler says that Mr. Obama engaged in statutory overreach and that Mr. Wheeler’s narrow reading of his authority under the Clean Air Act is the only legally defensible one. The act, he says, gives the E.P.A. power to fix individual plants, not upgrade the grid as a whole. Many others beg to differ, and attorneys general in New York, California and other states, plus a host of environmental groups, plan to sue on the grounds that the Trump rule artificially narrows what they believe is the agency’s authority to adopt a systemwide approach to emissions control.

It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that the question of what the E.P.A. can and cannot do will eventually come before the Supreme Court in what Jody Freeman, a professor and environmental expert at Harvard University, has predicted will be “a blockbuster” case. Brett Kavanaugh, whose appointment has strengthened the court’s conservative wing, once described the Clean Air Act as a “thin statute,” not designed with greenhouse gases and climate change in mind. The great fear among climate activists is that by upholding Mr. Wheeler’s cramped view of the agency’s authority, the court could effectively foreclose more aggressive action by the E.P.A. in the future.

The demolition job on the Obama climate legacy continues: the rules limiting methane emissions from oil and gas wells, the climate agreement in Paris, now the clean energy plan. Next on the hit list? Probably Mr. Obama’s fuel economy standards. A rule now in the making would essentially freeze those standards at about 37 miles per gallon, well short of the 54.5 miles per gallon Mr. Obama ordained near the end of his administration.

In this case, however, the intended beneficiary of the rollback, the automobile industry, is far from enthusiastic. A new rule would invite a legal challenge from California and 13 other states that can now set their own mileage standards, and that would insist on keeping those standards in place. That, in turn, raises the real possibility of a bifurcated auto market, a nightmare for manufacturers that would have to make different vehicles for two markets. Will Mr. Trump persist in a strategy that even the affected industry has said it doesn’t want? Our money is on litigation. This president has shown little appetite for negotiation.

More Times coverage of climate change
E.P.A. Finalizes Its Plan to Replace Obama-Era Climate Rules

New York to Approve One of the World’s Most Ambitious Climate Plans

Opinion | The Editorial Board
Where the Climate Change Action Is

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