with Paulina Firozi


Last month, the Trump administration took its most significant action to date in regulating power plants — one the agency said would reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector by as much as a third nationwide by the end of the next decade compared to 2005.

There is an issue, though: Not every state is going to see a reduction in emissions. In fact, as many as 16 states could see an increase in the amount of carbon dixiode emissions blamed for causing the bulk of climate change.

That means those states will not only be individually contributing more to global warming by 2030, but they may have to contend with increased local air pollution from coal-fired plants that may have otherwise cut back on production had the Obama administration's regulations been implemented.

President Trump's Affordable Clean Energy rule, finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency in June, is the administration's biggest swing at rolling back federal climate regulations the previous administration tried to put in place.

That means that under the Trump replacement to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, the EPA expects a total of 16 states, plus the District of Columbia, to see a spike in carbon dioxide emissions compared to a business-as-usual scenario in which the federal government took no action, according to an analysis of agency data done by the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund. 

Put another way: About one in five coal-fired power plants will actually see an increase in carbon emissions under a Trump administration rule meant to reduce carbon emissions, according to Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank that studies environmental policy.

“The surprising thing about this result is its inconsistency with the goals of the regulation itself," said Amelia Keyes, a research assistant at Resources for the Future.

The consequences go beyond climate change. A total of 20 states, as well as the District, are expected to see increases in emissions of sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides relative to the business-as-usual scenario, according to EDF. Both pollutants are precursors to the formation of smog, which contributes to a host of heart and lung problems.

Unlike the Clean Power Plan, which never took effect because of a Supreme Court decision, the Trump administration is not setting specific emissions cuts state by state in a way that would force utilities to switch from coal to lower-carbon sources of energy. Instead, the EPA is leaving it up to state regulators to improve the efficiency of coal-fired power — that is, to get more electricity for every pound of coal burned rather than closing coal plants entirely.

The lack of mandatory emissions cuts for states led some administration critics to say the EPA's numbers are overly optimistic. "They have adopted asssumptions that are highly self-serving," said Andres Restrepo, a staff attorney at the Sierra Club.

Even without regulation, market forces have eaten into coal's share of the electricity sector as the coal business struggles to compete with cheaper and lower-carbon energy sources.

So why should making coal-fired power more efficient lead to higher carbon emissions in some states but not others? The answer depends a lot on other electricity options with which coal is competing.

When coal plants invest in energy-efficiency improvements, they are able to produce electricity more cheaply. That, in turn, delays their closure and, in some cases, displaces lower-carbon energy sources that would have otherwise taken its market share.

In Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Carolina, for example, energy-efficiency improvements at coal plants are projected to make their electricity cheap enough to displace natural-gas generation. Coal-fired power in Florida and Georgia is projected to displace renewable generation in those two states as well.

As a result, carbon pollution is expected to increase from all five states.

“These maps really illustrate a perverse side effect of this system that EPA is basing its replacement of the Clean Power Plan on,” said Tomás Carbonell, EDF's director of regulatory policy and lead attorney.

The math works out differently in other states. In Texas, for example, improvements at coal plants will displace some natural-gas power, but the energy-efficiency gains at coal plants are expected to lead to an overall decrease in carbon emissions from the state.

Both the Trump and Obama administrations' plans aimed to cut carbon emissions from the power sector by about a third by 2030.

But that is far less than what is necessary to keep global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius. According to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. electricity sector would need to cut its emissions 74 percent to reach that goal. 

Note: The Energy 202 is taking a break for the long Independence Day weekend. The next edition of the newsletter will be published Monday, July 8. I'll be on vacation that week, but we have a great group of guest writers lined up. In the meantime, enjoy the fireworks! 


President Trump has asked the Pentagon to marshal a broadening array of military hardware, including tanks and fighter jets, for his Fourth of July address. (The Washington Post)

— Using park money to pay for Trump’s July Fourth extravaganza: The National Park Service is diverting $2.5 million from park entrance and recreation fees – money normally used to improve the nation’s parks – to fund the president’s expanded Independence Day celebration, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin, Josh Dawsey and Dan Lamothe report. “By tapping entrance fees to cover the presidential event, Interior is siphoning money that is typically used to enhance the visitor experience either on the Mall or at smaller parks across the country, with projects ranging from road and bridge repair to habitat restoration,” they write. “The transfer amounts to nearly 5 percent of the funds that less-profitable parks used last year for upgrades, according to budget documents.” National Parks Conservation Association president and CEO Theresa Pierno called it a “breach of trust with the public.” The diverted fees are also just a fraction of the extra costs associated with the expanded celebration.

 — House panel wants information about Puerto Rico response: Democrats on the House Oversight Committee sent a letter to the White House demanding it provide documents related to how the administration handled the 2017 hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Every Democratic member of the committee also previously signed a letter sent to the White House in May calling for “all communications about Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane Maria hit, killing thousands of people and devastating the island’s infrastructure,” The Post’s Colby Itkowtiz reports. In the new letter, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Oversight Committee, and Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee on environment, are threatening “compulsory” action if the White House doesn’t respond by next Wednesday. “The President’s public defiance of all congressional oversight not only obstructs us from fulfilling our responsibility under the Constitution to conduct credible oversight, but it also insults the memory of the Americans who lost their lives as a result of this disaster,” the pair wrote.

— “Let me be clear, I am not backing down”: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) is promising action on climate change even after a controversial cap-and-trade bill was buried by lawmakers after a week-long stalemate. “Brown said she was still looking for lawmakers to reach a compromise and pass a bill akin to House Bill 2020 in a future session, but she said she would use her executive authority if lawmakers can’t get there,” the Oregonian reports. “Brown does have some discretion to take action through her agencies, experts say, though the scope of those are unlikely to match the ambition of the legislation. She could direct the Department of Environmental Quality, for example, to tighten existing regulation of stationary sources of pollution, including industrial companies and utilities. She might be able to beef up building codes.”

— Right-wing think tanks vs. automakers: Newly released communications show how a coalition of groups that dispute mainstream climate consensus sought to label auto manufacturers as adversaries in the administration’s efforts to roll back fuel economy rules, the New York Times reports. In one such email, a member of free-market think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote to supporters and an EPA official: “The automakers are not going to help and may be part of the opposition” and urged the Trump administration to move forward with rolling back the Obama-era emissions standards. “The correspondence, released by the Environmental Protection Agency to the Sierra Club under a public records request, underscores the rising influence of climate denialist groups, which jumped from the fringe to the mainstream in the Trump administration and now hold sway in federal policymaking,” the report adds.


— The impact of extreme weather, as seen from space: The struggles Midwestern farmers have faced this year as a result of extreme rains can be visualized from space, with the Midwest looking more like a brown belt than a stretch of green showing thriving crops from North Dakota to Ohio. “Unplanted, drowned or late fields have two things in common: They look brown from space, and they mean farmers will probably harvest less corn and soybeans this year than they had planned,” The Post’s John Muyskens, Laris Karklis, Andrew Van Dam write in this deep look that includes satellite images comparing what previous years looked like in the region.


— Saudi Aramco watch: After putting plans on hold, Saudi Arabia is reviving preparations for an initial public offering for the state oil company Aramco, Bloomberg News reports. “Aramco, the world’s most profitable company, recently held talks with a select group of investment banks to discuss potential roles on the offering,” per the report. “The revived IPO plan will still face significant hurdles, including the ability of the kingdom to achieve the $2 trillion valuation it’s been seeking for the company. Demand for the share sale would also likely be affected by lower oil prices as well as growing concerns among top institutional investors about pouring money into fossil-fuel companies that contribute to climate change.”


Coming Up

  • The House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on “Glacial and Ice Sheet Melt in a Changing Climate” on July 11.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on the Environment hold a hearing on hurricane resiliency on July 22


— A long walk for an arctic fox: Scientists say that an arctic fox wearing a tracker walked from the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen all the way to Canada, walking an average of 30 and up to 100 miles a day. “The fox these researchers followed stood out for just how fast it covered more than 2,700 miles — and shed light on far-north fox sightings that explorers wondered about as far back as the 1800s,” The Post’s Hannah Knowles reports.