EPA Rolls Back Carbon Rule for New Coal Plants, But No One Wants to Build Them

The Mitchell Power Station outside of Pittsburgh. Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, signed a proposal Thursday to roll back a 2015 regulation limiting the amount of carbon dioxide new coal-fired power plants could emit. Despite promises from the Trump administration and the coal industry, the rule change is unlikely to lead to the construction of new power plants. But it is another reminder that the Trump administration is not concerned about climate change.

The old Obama-era rule capped CO2 emissions for new coal-fired power plants at 1,400 pounds per megawatt-hour, which would have required carbon capture technology that coal companies say is too expensive and not even commercially available. The new rule will increase the limit to 1,900 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

The change is being welcomed by the coal industry, but it’s unlikely to result in the construction of any new plants. Natural gas and renewables are too cheap, and the last new coal-fired power plant to come online in the U.S. cost an eye-popping $1.8 billion. Fact is, the energy sector is moving away from coal altogether, as Vox explains:

In 2018 alone, 20 coal-fired power plants have closed or are scheduled to shut down. Overall coal power generation capacity has fallen by one-third since 2010. And coal consumption is at its lowest level since 1979. Meanwhile, coal mining jobs have cratered from a high of more than 800,000 in the 1920s to roughly 76,000 today.

So why even make the rule change if no one wants to build new coal plants? Politics has something to do with it. Just as the Obama-era rule was seen as an attack, rescinding it will be seen as supporting coal country, even if it will bring no material change.

Mitch McConnell knew as much when he called the new rule “a crucial step toward undoing the damage and putting coal back on a level playing field.” So did Wheeler when he said the it was made “so that new energy technologies can be part of America’s future.” But they know the industry and the people who benefit from it will see this as a much-needed win, or a “psychic boost,” as Bloomberg put it.

Statistics tell us that Trump isn’t bringing back the coal industry, despite his promises. But with regulatory moves like this one, he can pretend to. He can also continue thumbing his nose at climate change, something the Trump administration seems to relish. There may be no better example of that than the presentation the U.S. delegation plans at the upcoming climate conference in Poland. The panel, the Washington Post reports, will promote “fossil fuels as part of the solution to global warming.”

EPA Rolls Back Carbon Rule for New Coal Plants