The coal industry should benefit from President Donald Trump’s proposal to replace an emissions rule that put coal-fired power plants at a disadvantage, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday during a visit to Kentucky.
The earlier Obama-era plan would have forced many coal-fired power plants out of business, said acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
Coal plants have long been key customers for coal mined in Kentucky.
“This was a rule that really hurt the state of Kentucky,” Wheeler said of the Obama plan.
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Wheeler appeared at the headquarters of Clark Energy Cooperative in Winchester with U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican involved in a tough fight for re-election against Democrat Amy McGrath.
The Trump Administration earlier this week released what it calls the Affordable Clean Energy rule to cut power-plant greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere.
Plants that burn coal to produce electricity are a significant source of particulate pollution and of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change.
Scientists say the impact of that change includes drought, bigger wildfires and damaging storms.
Trump’s rule would make it easier for coal-fired power plants to make upgrades aimed at increasing efficiency — which reduces emissions — without triggering requirements to install additional pollution-control technology.
Supporters say that will help plants stay in business that would have closed under Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which in turn will benefit the coal industry.
Kentucky and other states challenged Obama’s proposal and it never went into effect.
Barr called Obama’s plan a “top-down, Washington one-size-fits-all approach” that would have pushed up electricity costs.
Trump’s plan will protect the reliability of the power grid, help utilities improve efficiency and allow for environmental progress “in a way that makes sense for consumers,” Barr said.
EPA projected that Trump’s plan would lead to an increase of 4.5 percent to 5.8 percent in U.S. coal production for use in making electricity.
That was a nationwide estimate, so it’s not clear how much Trump’s plan would boost coal jobs and production in Kentucky.
“I think it definitely helps production in Kentucky,” particularly in the state’s western coalfield, said Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
Coal from Western Kentucky costs less than coal from Eastern Kentucky, were production costs are higher. Western Kentucky coal contains more of a pollutant called sulfur, but many utilities can burn it because they’ve installed scrubbers to meet earlier federal clean-air rules.
Coal production and jobs have plummeted in Kentucky since 2011.
Studies have shown the biggest reason was competition from cheap natural gas for power-plant customers.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration has projected that coal-fired generating capacity will continue down until 2030 because of competition from natural gas and renewable energy, before leveling off.
The agency made that projection before Trump released his plan. The agency hasn’t yet modeled how Trump’s plan would affect coal-plant retirements.
Environmentalists and other critics say Trump’s plan has some big downsides because it would let older, more-polluting coal plants keep running.
The EPA’s projections acknowledged Trump’s plan would not cut pollution as much as the one Obama proposed.
Bloomberg reported that the agency projected Trump’s plan would cause up to 1,630 additional premature deaths each year from heart and lung disease, but said some experts think that figure could be low.
“It is not as protective as the Clean Power Plan,” Lane Boldman, head of the Kentucky Conservation Committee, said of Trump’s plan.
The proposal would also slow down the transition to energy sources that are better for the environment and health and would provide more jobs in the long run, Boldman said.
Asked about the projection for more deaths and respiratory illness under Trump’s proposal, Wheeler said the nation’s air quality is 73 percent better than in the 1970s because of clean-air rules that remain in effect.
“The air quality continues to improve each year and will continue to improve going into the future,” Wheeler said.
Carbon emissions would continue going down under Trump’s plan, Wheeler said, though he acknowledged not as quickly as under Obama’s proposal.
However, Obama’s plan picked winners and losers among fuel types and appeared to go further than the law allowed, Wheeler said.
“I don’t consider this a rollback” because Obama’s plan never went into effect, Wheeler said.
Opponents have pledged legal challenges to Trump’s plan, which could hold it up indefinitely.