Since January, the Trump administration has steadily chipped away at environmental rules and regulations put in place by the Obama administration. Now it looks like they're going after larger prey: President Obama's signature climate change policy, the Clean Power Plan.
The Clean Power Plan was first proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June 2014 and was unveiled by President Obama on August 3, 2015. The Clean Power Plan established state-by-state targets for carbon emission reductions, and was on track to reduce national electricity-related emissions by approximately 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.
The Clean Power Plan was by no means the ideal policy to combat climate change (spoiler alert: my ideal policy would be much stricter. Read the phenomenally idealistic book Ecotopia for an idea of what I'd like to see), but as the first-ever American policy to put limits on carbon emissions from power plans, it was still a triumph.
Now, if you try to find information on the Clean Power Plan on the EPA's website, you'll be taken to a page titled "Energy Independence." It proudly states that implementation of President Trump's Executive Order on Energy Independence will "protect thousands of jobs and strengthen energy security, while also ensuring that our policies provide clean air and clean water for all of our citizens."
However, the actual Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth, released on March 28 of this year, doesn't seem to support that claim. I read the entire Executive Order to see just how the administration planned to protect jobs, strengthen energy security, and provide clean air and water. The majority of the order included phrasing that directs agency heads to "review all existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and any other similar agency actions that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources." It is later clarified that "'burden' means to unnecessarily obstruct, delay, curtail, or otherwise impose significant costs on the siting, permitting, production, utilization, transmission, or delivery of energy resources." I've heard the Trump administration use similar language when, for example, they repealed Obama's Federal Flood Risk Management Standard that was meant to protect infrastructure projects in flood prone areas. Trump celebrated the fact that repealing the flood risk standard would mean less waiting time during the construction permit process.
The Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth also revokes the following Presidential actions: (i) Executive Order 13653 of November 1,2013 (Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change; (ii) The Presidential memorandum of June 25, 2013 (Power Sector Carbon Pollution Standards); (iii) The Presidential memorandum of November 3, 2014 (Mitigating Impacts on Natural Resources from Development and Encouraging Related Private Investment); and (iv) The Presidential Memorandum of September 21, 2016 (Climate Change and National Security). The Report of the Executive Office of the President of June 2013 (The President's Climate Action Plan) and the Report of the Executive Office of the President of March 2014 (Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions) were also rescinded. Finally, the Council on Environmental Quality rescinded its "Final Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Effects of Climate Chance in National Environmental Policy Act Reviews.
Clearly, President Trump's Executive Order is more focused on fulfilling his promises to bring back coal jobs and economic growth than protecting the environment. And, with Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump is easily getting his way.
What is the Clean Power Plan?
One of the major attractions of the Clean Power Plan was that it could be customized by each state. The plan included a flexible framework for states to meet their targeted carbon emission reductions, which meant that each state could use a unique mix of their own resources. States could choose from a number of options best suited for cutting carbon emissions such as investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency projects, using natural gas or nuclear power, and shifting away from coal-fired power. States were also allowed to join together in a regional compact to work together for low cost carbon emission reduction plans, such as emission trading programs.
Another key part of the Clean Power Plan was a late addition of measures that would help limit a rush by states to use natural gas. Natural gas is certainly clean burning than coal, but it is still a natural gas and has numerous hazards in production, distribution, and storage, including a large risk of methane leakage. That's notable because methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases - it is about 30 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
The Clean Power Plan included four main ways to limit a potential natural gas rush. The first was to increase the role of renewable energy in state's emission reduction goals. One of the ways this was accomplished was through the Clean Energy Incentive Program, which would reward early investments in renewable energy generation through a matching fund. The program was meant to encourage development and deployment of wind and solar power and to provide access to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in low-income communities, which historically have less access to environmental services than wealthier communities with larger voices. Unfortunately, with the repeal of the Clean Power Plan the Clean Energy Incentive Program has also disappeared - when I clicked on a link to learn more about the Clean Energy Incentive Program on the EPA's website, I was taken to a "page not found" display.
The second safeguard the Clean Power Plan included to limit a rush to natural gas was that renewable energy would be allowed to displace coal and natural gas generation. The third safeguard focused on kickstarting the coal to natural gas switch. By starting that transition states had time to develop lower emission options that would pay off over the long term. The final safeguard ensured that there were no incentives to build new natural gas plants. In the first version of the Clean Power Plan emissions for natural gas plants would not count toward state targets - creating a perverse incentive to build more natural gas plants. This loophole was fixed in the final draft to ensure that long-term carbon dioxide emission reductions of all kinds were the penultimate goal of the plan.
Why Do We Need the Clean Power Plan?
2014 was the hottest year since we began global record-keeping in 1880. Then 2015 happened. Then 2016 - all three years breaking the previously held record. In fact, the global temperature record has been broken five times since the start of the 21st century: in 2005, 2010, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Rising temperatures have a deep and varied impact, but one of the most immediate places you see their effect is on either pole. In 2016 the average Arctic sea ice was the smallest annual average since record-keeping began in 1979 at just 3.92 million square miles. Scientists often define an ice-free Arctic Ocean as having less than 1 million square kilometers of sea ice, and some experts believe that will happen by 2040. As that ice melts sea levels will continue to rise.
Currently, sea levels are rising at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch per year. The rise is attributed to thermal expansion of the water caused by warming ocean temperatures and the melting of land-based ice. More than ninety coastal communities in the United States were battling chronic flooding as of July 2017, and that number is expected to double in less than twenty years.
Increased ocean temperatures don't just contribute to sea level rise - it is also the leading causes of coral bleaching. When ocean temperatures warm, coral becomes stressed and it expels the zooxanthellae algae that lives in their tissues, causing the coral to turn completely white, or become "bleached." Ocean acidification, overexposure to sunlight, pollution from runoff, and extreme low tides that expose coral to air also contribute to coral bleaching. Coral bleaching doesn't necessarily mean certain death, but it does leave the coral vulnerable to disease, with degraded structural integrity, and with slower growth and reproduction rates.
The fall 2017 hurricane season has also been record shattering. Before Harvey and Irma hit the United States a major hurricane (category 3 or higher) had not made landfall since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Hurricane Irma spent three days as a Category 5 hurricane, making it the longest Category 5 storm on record. Irma also maintained winds at 185 mph or higher for thirty seven hours, another record breaker. Hurricane Harvey dumped 27 trillion gallons of water over Texas and Louisiana in six days. Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico's electric grid, hospitals, roads, and other infrastructure devastated in the wake of the storm.
As of October 12th, 8,584,212 acres of land have burned from wildfires in 2017. The annual average for 2006-2016 was 6,010,507 acres, putting this year far ahead the average. Wildfires burned over 10 million acres in 2015, making it the largest annual amount of land burned since 1983.
Without the United States working to combat climate change with policies like the Clean Power Plan it will be difficult to get make any major progress globally. In 2014, the United States was the second largest emitter, contributing 15% of global emissions from fossil fuel burning. Also, cumulatively, the United States has contributed more carbon dioxide emissions than any other country on the planet. For any solution to have a real shot at mitigating the effects of climate change, the United States must be involved.