Aug 21, 2018 - Energy & Environment

The limits of Trump's new coal move

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal this morning to weaken climate rules for power plants will do little to blunt the forces undercutting coal in electricity markets, several analysts tell Axios.

Share of electricity: EIA, Production: EIA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Share of electricity: EIA, Production: EIA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Why it matters: President Trump has made efforts to cut regulations on coal — the most carbon-intensive power source — a centerpiece of his energy agenda, but the administration has few tools make substantial changes to the trajectory of the once-dominant fuel's declining share of power markets.

"With [natural] gas prices looking low for the foreseeable future and now unsubsidized renewables starting to look attractive, it is just too little too late for coal."
— University of Texas energy expert Joshua Rhodes

Driving the news: The EPA will unveil draft rules today that would replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The 2015 plan never kicked in, but would have set standards that sought to cut nationwide power-sector carbon emissions by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.

  • Via press reports and a summary obtained by E&E News, the replacement basically abandons the prior rule's effort to hasten the transition to other sources, and instead calls on states to make efficiency improvements to coal plants.
  • It would also ease regulations that govern when coal plant owners can make upgrades to plants without triggering mandates to install new pollution controls.

Reality check: "Most coal plant retirements have been based on poor economics, not on smokestack limitations," electricity consultant Alison Silverstein said.

  • "Coal is still going to be more expensive per kilowatt-hour than gas, wind, solar PV, so that coal will still be higher on the dispatch stack and won’t be dispatched more," she said, referring to the way power market regulators order which generation sources are used to meet demand.
  • However, she does expect that the new plan could aid a subset of municipally-owned and cooperative coal plants that are more insulated from competition.

Between the lines: John Larsen of the Rhodium Group consultancy is skeptical that the weaker regulation will do much to hinder the what has been a downward trend in power sector greenhouse gas emissions.

  • His group sees a huge amount of coal coming offline over the next decade — essentially no matter what.
  • In a recent note to clients, Rhodium forecasts 71 to 124 gigawatts worth of coal plant retirements by 2030, depending on several variables like gas costs, power demand and economic growth.
  • In an interview, Larsen said that the Obama rule was not going to be the main driver. In fact, he said that combining the Clean Power Plan rollback with steps the Trump administration has taken to pare other regulations, the effect is still limited.
  • "All of it might make a marginal difference for a handful of plants," he said.

The intrigue: Per The Wall Street Journal, the administration sees the plan only slowing the decline of coal in power markets.

  • But it arrives as the White House is weighing much more aggressive moves, via other agencies, that would use sweeping emergency powers to keep economically struggling coal and nuclear plants in operation.
  • Larsen calls that a "wildcard" regarding whether coal's decline will be stemmed. "If you inject billions of dollars into the coal and nuclear fleet to keep them afloat, that’s a different story," he tells Axios.

The big picture: Even if Obama's initiatives survived unscathed, the U.S would still not be on pace to meet its Paris agreement targets for economy-wide emissions cuts, a recent Rhodium analysis shows.

Go deeper: The New York Times explores the upcoming EPA plan here.

This story has been updated to note that the proposal has been released.

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