Week 126: Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule: Neither Affordable nor Clean. Let’s Discuss.

Also, Trump finds a new way to limit scientific advice to his administration.

June 21, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg Creative Photos

On the Rebound: Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released on Wednesday its replacement for the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s signature initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from the nation’s aging power plant fleet. Trump is calling his plan the Affordable Clean Energy rule. I guess he’s using the term “clean” neither seriously nor literally.

The key difference between Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy rule is simple: Trump did away with the emissions cap that Obama’s plan gave to each state. Instead, he’s recommending efficiency improvements for each individual power plant.

So can we expect any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gases from the new plan? Not likely. By capping a state’s overall power sector emissions, the Clean Power Plan created a clear incentive to replace high-emitting coal-fired power plants with renewable sources like solar and wind. Trump’s plan contains little incentive to move toward renewables. And even if it succeeds in improving the efficiency of coal-fired plants, that doesn’t mean overall emissions will drop. Efficiency improvements sometimes increase use—a phenomenon known as the rebound effect.

Trump’s plan perversely creates an incentive to run dirty coal-fired power plants harder and longer. Let’s say you own an old, inefficient, coal-fired power plant. Every day, you have to place bids to sell your electricity into the power grid. But since your plant uses a lot of coal to produce a little bit of energy, you’re not going to win those auctions. It simply costs you too much money to make electricity, and you can’t compete financially with natural gas, renewables, or even nuclear power. So your old coal-fired power plant has been sitting idle most of the time—until now.

Here comes the EPA and your state government, offering recommendations, maybe even incentivizing you to improve the efficiency of your plant. Since it’s a coal-fired facility, it’s still going to be far dirtier than its competitors, but the increased efficiency makes you a little more competitive financially. Now you’re occasionally winning those auctions, especially during times of projected high demand, and your plant is running more often. And with every extra year you can squeeze out of your old, dirty power plant, our climate and air quality will suffer.

The rebound effect is controversial, and it doesn’t apply in all contexts. Arguments that, say, more efficient light bulbs spur consumer demand for more energy have generally proved wrong—people don’t keep their lights on longer just because it’s cheaper to do so. But in the power plant context, there is good evidence that it will happen. A modeling study released earlier this year showed that 28 percent of power plants would emit more greenhouse gases in 2030 under Trump’s plan than if no greenhouse gas reduction policy were enacted.

The Affordable Clean Energy rule is a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry. It’s also a death sentence for many American people: The administration’s own analysis of an earlier, substantially similar version of the rule showed that increased air pollution would kill 1,400 more people per year by 2030 than under the Clean Power Plan. Let’s hope the courts will save us from this disaster.

How Many Advisory Committees Does It Take to Make Decisions? No, Seriously. How Many?

President Trump signed an executive order late last week aimed at reducing the number of federal advisory committees. The move is a good example of how Trump takes a reasonable idea and puts his own completely insane stamp on it.

Federal advisory committees are nearly as old as the federal government itself. George Washington convened a body of experts to help him suppress a violent rebellion over alcohol taxes in western Pennsylvania in 1794. As the government’s responsibilities grew, so did the number of advisory committees. There are now as many as 1,000 of them, providing federal agencies expertise on subjects ranging from product safety to environmental science to medical research.

Is 1,000 advisory committees too many, not enough, or just right? If you’re worried about “too many cooks,” you’d look to answer that question by examining what those committees do and how well they do it. This is the reasonable part of Trump’s executive order: Federal agencies will be required to review their committees and determine which are working. Those that are not worthwhile are vulnerable to elimination.

But here’s where the Trumpian madness enters. Trump reached his conclusion before the review began. Trump has ordered all agencies to cut at least one-third of their committees by September.

How did the president come up with that number? He didn’t say. What makes him think that 666 (or so) federal agencies is exactly the right number, while 1,000 is too many? He hasn’t told us. Could he even name 10 federal advisory committees without the help of an adviser? I seriously doubt it. The new executive order recalls, in its utter arbitrariness, Trump’s 2017 mandate that agencies eliminate two rules for every one they enact.

To be fair, agency heads may apply for waivers to the rule, and the order doesn’t apply to some committees. But those exceptions would not be necessary without the arbitrary one-third reduction—managers could simply review the committees and make honest assessments about what they should keep and what they should cut. Trump doesn’t want to be bothered by such reasoned, specific recommendations when he has already made up his mind.

This isn’t about budget. Advisory committees cost the government money only when they’re called into action, so there’s no need to abolish a committee that is rarely consulted. In an interview with The Hill, Elizabeth Klein, an Interior Department official during the Obama administration, put her finger on Trump’s real motivation: Advisory committees ensure that federal agencies are “not just asking their most favorite stakeholders what they should do.” President Trump’s modus operandi in rulemaking is to ask industry heads what they want and then give it to them. Scientists and other outside experts merely get in his way.

Federal rulemaking is about to get one-third less transparent.

Save the Clean Power Plan

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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