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On March 28th, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order outlining major changes in environmental policy, instructing the EPA to repeal the Clean Power Plan, restrict the use of carbon cost calculations in new regulations, and  to ease restrictions on fossil fuel production, marking a major shift in environmental policy in this Administration.

On March 28th, 2017, the president signed an executive order instructing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make several changes: removal of the Clean Power Plan, barring the Social Cost of Carbon figure in cost-benefit analyses, and easing of rules regarding fossil fuel extraction on public lands. This executive order aims to reshape energy policy in the United States, attempting to re-emphasize the role of fossil fuels in our economy, and attempts to remove numerous environmental regulations implemented during the previous administration.

Removal of the Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan is a rule created by the EPA at the request of President Obama, released on August 3rd, 2015 (See the full text of the rule here). The rule is the first such rule targeting greenhouse gas pollution from power plants, with a target of reducing carbon emissions from power generation to 32 percent below 2005 levels. The EPA estimates that this rule would result in fiscal benefits of $20 billion in climate benefits and $14-34 billion in health benefits. Additionally, the EPA also estimates that targeting carbon pollution from power plants would have the additional benefit of reducing other air pollutants, predicting that this rule would prevent 3,600 premature deaths, 1,700 heart attacks, 90,000 asthma attacks, and 300,000 missed work or school days each year. The rule would be implemented on a state-by-state basis, with each state deciding how to regulate power plants in order to meet specific state targets, providing 15 years for the state to implement all emissions reductions measures. Failure to comply would result in the EPA imposing its own plan on the state.

Enactment of the rule was stayed by the Supreme Court on February 9th, 2016, pending judicial review. This new executive order specifically directs the EPA to rewrite this rule, and also asks that the judicial review wait until the re-write is complete. What this means for changes to this rule, is that they must go through the same rule-making process that all other regulatory agencies must use when crafting new regulations, and most importantly, changes that weaken or remove this rule must be justified. A complete repeal of the Clean Power Act is unlikely, given that the repeal must undergo the same rulemaking process other federal regulations must undergo, and that any changes are likely to be immediately challenged by a lawsuit. Since the enactment of this executive order, seventeen states have filed a legal challenge against the EPA, asking that the review of the Clean Power Plan be completed. A rule found to be legally sound will likely be more difficult to repeal using the standard rulemaking process.

Notably, this executive order does not address the EPA’s endangerment finding. This finding, released December 7th, 2009, finds that six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride threaten public health. This finding was written in response to a 2007 Supreme Court case (Massachusetts v EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007) that found that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act, and that the EPA must make a determination as to whether these gases from vehicles are enough to constitute a public health threat. With this finding in place, the EPA is still tasked with treating greenhouse gases as air pollutants, further making a full-repeal of the Clean Power Plan difficult.

The Social Cost of Carbon

Additionally, the order eliminates the usage of the social cost of carbon into cost-benefit analyses of proposed regulations, and disbands the Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases. This figure is designed to take into account the cost of the damage of emitting one ton of carbon dioxide into the air, and most recently, was set at $37 dollars per ton in 2015. The EPA itself argues that this figure likely is missing factors that cannot be measured accurately, and should be even higher.

What do these changes mean for Milwaukee?

In the short term, the state and region will see few changes. The regulations of the Clean Power Plan had not taken effect, due to the court-ordered stay. Wisconsin overall has no fossil-fuel resources of its own, though it does supply a large amount of sand used in hydraulic fracturing, which may benefit the state if there is an increase in hydraulic fracturing as a result of this order. Given how contentious these changes are, and how they seemingly conflict with the laws that govern the EPA’s responsibilities, these orders are likely to be tied up in court for a considerable amount of time. In addition, our region, like much of the rest of the country, is moving away from coal power toward other cleaner sources. We Energies, our main energy provider, has announced plans to shut down their Pleasant Prairie coal plant, the single largest coal-fired power plant in the state, for six months of the year due to the high cost of coal compared to natural gas. In addition, the utility has converted its Menomonee Valley power plant in Milwaukee to run completely on natural gas, helping Milwaukee breathe a little easier. the In the long run, however, this order sets a precedent for this administration that the prevention of climate change is not a priority for this administration, and in fact, is seen as a hindrance of the administration’s economic goals.

Power generation is a rapidly evolving industry, with newer technologies designed to harness energy cleanly and more efficiently being developed constantly. These developments are bringing down the costs of cleanly generated energy to levels approaching those of fossil fuels. This order represents a slowdown in our transition to climate-friendly energy sources, not a stop or even a pause. We can, however, make our voices heard to our cities, our counties, and our state representatives that we want Wisconsin to become a leader in the clean energy revolution. By encouraging our state to increase its usage of renewable energy, we can help bring the costs down further. Our administration may not be willing to listen, but the energy markets definitely do.

Written by John Uhrig for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)

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