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Tina Casey headshot

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Says Buh-Bye to Clean Power Plan -- and Maybe His Job, Too

By Tina Casey

On Tuesday October 10, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt is expected to set the wheels in motion to rescind the Clean Power Plan. The Obama-era initiative was designed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from power plants in general and coal fired power plants in particular. President Trump made tearing up the Clean Power Plan a key element in his 2016 campaign, so the squeeze is on Pruitt to deliver.

As if Pruitt doesn't have enough pressure on him already, several factors are combining to turn up the heat to the boiling point -- and somewhat ironically, his own job may be at stake.

Whatever happened to the Clean Power Plan?

For those of you new to the Clean Power Plan topic, here's a brief timeline.

President Obama rolled out the hallmark initiative in the summer of 2015, during the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate talks.

The Obama administration enlisted significant stakeholder engagement for the plan. That included, for example, more than two hundred U.S. companies that signed a letter in support, under the umbrella of the green investment group Ceres.

The 2015 Paris talks ultimately resulted in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which calls for nations to set self-imposed goals for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Every nation on Earth except Syria and Nicaragua signed on to the accord.

Unfortunately for clean power fans, after Trump became President he followed through on his campaign promises by announcing that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In an odd twist, Nicaragua later signed on. That leaves only Syria to keep the U.S. company in the outsiders club. Good times!

If you're having trouble following all that, no worries. Here in the U.S., the whole issue of chasing coal out of the power generation sector is already becoming a moot point. Coal power plants have been falling like dominoes in recent years, with cheap natural gas doing most of the heavy lifting.

In the latest development, last week one of the largest coal power plants in Texas announced that it will shut down in January. The reason has nothing to do with the Clean Power Plan, according to a spokesperson for the plant owner cited by the Dallas Morning News:

It's purely economic...The plant guys tried everything they could to keep it open, but it was a money loser. In a competitive market, you've got to take these steps. This is a coal plant operating in a market that's flooded with cheap natural gas.

That's no surprise. Actually, all of these coal power plant closures have been happening without the benefit of the Clean Power Plan. The emissions regulations were supposed to be administered by EPA under its Congressional mandated authority over air quality, but the whole thing has been tied up in federal court in February 2016 while a number of legal challenges are being worked out.

Scott Pruitt plays the coal card

Yes, the simple fact is that coal power plants have been closing left, right and center without EPA enforcement under the Clean Power Plan. The numbers add up to more than 250 closures since 2010, according to one count.

That's not for lack of trying on the part of Scott Pruitt. Before he took the reins as EPA chief in the Trump administration, Pruitt served as Attorney General of Oklahoma. In that capacity he brought no fewer than 14 challenges to EPA rules including the Clean Power Plan.

With all this in mind, Pruitt's new EPA announcement looks more like yet another political stunt rather than a serious attempt at formulating a national energy policy that benefits the general welfare.

Here's the runup to the big announcement from Pruitt himself, which he issued on Monday October 10 on the occasion of a joint speaking engagement targeting coal miners in Kentucky:

Speaking at an event in Hazard, Ky., with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Pruitt said his agency will publish the new proposed rule Tuesday.

“Tomorrow, in Washington, D.C., I’ll be a signing a proposed rule to withdraw the so-called Clean Power Plan of the past administration, and thus begin the effort to withdraw that rule,” Pruitt said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists was among the many clean power advocacy organizations that clapped back:
“This decision is irrevocably tainted by a conflict of interest. The EPA’s newly minted claim that the Clean Power Plan is legally invalid comes from—believe it or not—the legal brief of none other than Scott Pruitt, who challenged the Clean Power Plan in court as attorney general of Oklahoma. Mr. Pruitt has now participated in this issue as lawyer for one side, then as the judge and jury at EPA, and now as the executioner of the Clean Power Plan. Notably, a respected court was poised to resolve the legal issue, but Pruitt asked the court to hold off, so that he could short-circuit the judicial process."

So, there's that.

The Scott Pruitt dilemma

UCS President Ken Kimmell followed up with an analysis of the purported legal basis for Pruitt's decision. He underscored the conflict of interest at the heart of the new announcement:
...Scott Pruitt has participated in this important legal dispute over the Clean Power Plan first as a lawyer on one side, then as judge and jury at the EPA, and now as the plan’s executioner. Do the words “conflict of interest” mean nothing to this administration?

Do read Kimmell's full blog post to catch all the details, but for those of you on the go it boils down to Pruitt facing a dilemma -- he can't make a reasonable argument for repealing the Clean Power Plan on policy grounds, and he can't just tinker around the edges without angering coal industry stakeholders.

Either way, the attempt to rescind the Clean Power Plan will likely blow up in Pruitt's face. It is sure to face stiff opposition in court, where the Trump administration will be opposed by top US business leaders in addition to environmental advocacy organizations and other stakeholders.

Adding fuel to the fire, last week the Energy Department introduced a tandem proposal that would enable coal power plants to continue operating, by charging artificially high rates. In effect, that's a coal tax. That could put Trump in an awkward position with his anti-tax base voters -- and with hundreds if not thousands of business leaders, who are naturally more interested in keeping their operating expenses as low as possible, not artificially raising them.

All in all, it is likely that Pruitt's Clean Power Plan proposal will die on the vine, meeting a fate in common with every other major Trump administration initiative this year.

That raises the question of how much longer Pruitt can retain his position on the taxpayers' payroll. After all, Trump has already jettisoned top advisor Steve Bannon and others involved in his failed attempts to block immigrants from several countries, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price got the heave-ho last month after failing to deliver on Trump's promise to roll back the Affordable Care Act.

Not helping Pruitt is the fact that scrutiny into his exorbitant travel arrangements has intensified in recent days -- a circumstance that apparently played an instrumental role in Price's exit.

Stay tuned.

Photo (cropped): via Union of Concerned Scientists.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey