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Trump Administration Expected To Reveal Changes On Coal-Fired Plants


The Trump administration is set to overhaul one of President Obama's signature plans for addressing climate change. The Obama-era plan was called the Clean Power Plan, and it aimed to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump is expected to unveil its replacement. Janet McCabe helped shape the Clean Power Plan under President Obama. She worked at the EPA during his administration and joins me on the line.

Welcome to the program.

JANET MCCABE: Thanks, David. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, we appreciate you taking the time. The changes that the Trump administration will be unveiling - I mean, we don't know all the details yet - but it sounds like it's going to shift things and give states more control over regulating power plants. Is there merit to that idea, that states are best equipped to regulate their energy portfolios?

MCCABE: Well, you know, David, under the Clean Air Act, which we've had for 40 years now, there's always been a partnership between the federal and the state government in terms of controlling air pollution. And there are times when it makes sense for states to be in charge in really deciding where to make reductions. One of the challenges with this program, however, is that we're dealing with a global pollutant here, a pollutant that's affecting the entire country and, indeed, the entire world.

And the way the Clean Air Act deals with situations like that is by giving EPA the authority to establish the overall environmental and public health targets and then gives states guidelines on how to implement that. The challenge here with the utility industry is that it's not like other industry that works plant by plant by plant. This is an integrated, interconnecting grid all across the country. And power plants work together to produce energy for our country. And so a more national program where EPA sets clear targets for everybody to reach is what really makes sense here, and then the states work to implement those.

GREENE: But we should say the Clean Power Plan that you worked on - I mean, it's been a few years now - it's still not implemented. It's caught in legal battles, lawsuits. I mean, can you blame the Trump administration for, you know, as you say, looking at ways to use a balance that has been looked at before but trying to find a new path?

MCCABE: Well, this administration made clear from the very beginning that they were going to roll this rule back. There was no question about that. And Scott Pruitt, who was the first administrator of EPA under this administration, had challenged the plan on numerous occasions. So there was really no surprise about that. But what we're hearing about this proposal is that it was going to be basically an entire rollback of the plan. And this is - EPA's mission is to protect public health and the environment. This proposal that we're seeing is not about that.

GREENE: Why do you think that? What exactly - is it just that the enforcement options for EPA will not be strong enough? What's most concerning to you here?

MCCABE: Well, the entire approach of the rule is different. So under the Clean Power Plan, by 2030, the Clean Power Plan would have reduced CO2 from the nation's coal-fired power plants by about 19 percent. That's about the equivalent of taking 75 million cars off the road. According to information we've seen about this proposal, it would require about a - between a 0.7 and 1.5 percent reduction compared to 19 percent.

GREENE: That's much less.

MCCABE: Much, much less. And power plants are, next to transportation, the biggest source of carbon pollution in the country. And...

GREENE: Well, this is - coal plants - I mean, they've obviously been in the news so much because, especially in states like West Virginia, there are so many coal jobs that a lot of people are very worried about them. And President Trump is going there. He's going to tout this plan today. I mean, is there a way for a state like West Virginia to have some flexibility to curb emissions in its own way so it can find the right balance and try and do that and protect its coal jobs as much as possible?

MCCABE: Well, the Clean Power Plan was intended to do that because it set up a very flexible system where states and power companies could pool their emissions together, could trade and average across units so that the places where it's cheapest and most efficient to reduce emissions, that's where it would happen. And then the places where they need a little bit more time or it's more difficult, they don't have to. And that works with a pollutant like carbon dioxide because it's not a localized public health threat. It's a global public health threat.

So the Clean Power Plan already had that system set up. One of the challenges here, David, is people talk about the Clean Power Plan as having been an energy policy. It wasn't an energy policy. It was an air pollution policy, which is what EPA's job is. And the fact is that fossil-fired generation produces more air pollution than other types of generation like clean wind and solar. So for years, the fossil fuel industry and power plants have been regulated by EPA. And it has worked very well and cost effectively and saved millions of lives.

GREENE: Although we should say that the law you worked on is still not implemented - so that is not working so well yet.

MCCABE: Well, that's right. It was stayed by the Supreme Court. No reason was given by that court for staying it. And this is a big policy, so it's important that everybody have a chance to really look at it hard.

GREENE: Janet McCabe was acting Assistant Administrator for the EPA Office of Air and Radiation under President Obama.

Thanks a lot.

MCCABE: You bet. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.