ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Today, the Trump administration threw its biggest lifeline yet to the ailing coal industry. It's a new rule called Affordable Clean Energy, and it replaces one of President Obama's signature efforts to address climate change. NPR's Jeff Brady joins us now with details. Hi, Jeff.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So what's the difference between President Trump's Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, as they are calling it, and Obama's Clean Power Plan?
BRADY: Well, the Obama rule, the Clean Power Plan, it was more sweeping and more specific. It directed states to reduce emissions from power plants by nearly a third by year 2030. It let states figure out how to do that, but for many of them, that would've meant shutting down coal-fired power plants because they emit more greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which, of course, contribute to climate change.
The ACE rule is more narrowly focused and gives states more discretion. This rule looks at individual power plants and what can be done to make them more efficient. That means under the Trump administration rule, it's more likely that a coal plant currently operating could stay open longer.
SHAPIRO: The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan actually never took effect because two dozen states, many of them coal-producing states, sued to block it. How are people in those states and the coal industry responding today?
BRADY: Well, they're very happy about this rule change. They thought the Obama administration overstepped its authority under the Clean Air Act with its plan. At the EPA headquarters today, there were some coal workers in their gear and hard hats for the announcement. At one point, they were given a standing ovation.
And among the speakers was Michelle Bloodworth. She's head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. She said this new rule will prevent more coal power plants from shutting down or retiring, as the industry calls it.
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MICHELLE BLOODWORTH: Avoiding additional retirements is so important given that 40% of the coal fleet has either retired or announced retirement. And we expect under the Clean Power Plan, there certainly would've been a lot more.
BRADY: Of course, President Trump campaigned saying that he would help the coal industry, but dozens of plants have shut down since he was elected, mostly because natural gas and renewable energy are cheaper.
SHAPIRO: And what are environmental groups saying about the new rule today?
BRADY: They're very critical of this rule. Climate change is on a lot of people's minds now, and they think the country should be doing more to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, not less. Joining the criticism are former Obama administration officials who were involved in writing the Clean Power Plan. Janet McCabe was at the EPA back then.
JANET MCCABE: I think what this rule cements in people's minds is that this administration has no intent of doing anything meaningful to address climate change, which is affecting people and communities across the country now, and that will increase.
BRADY: Environmental groups and others have already said they plan to sue to challenge this plan.
A key question will be how far can the EPA go in setting national policy on carbon emissions, because there's a sense that this rule change from the Trump administration could make it more difficult for future administrations to take an aggressive approach.
SHAPIRO: The whole purpose of the Clean Power Plan was to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. How is the country doing on that front?
BRADY: You know, not bad, actually. The country has almost reached the Clean Power Plan goal a decade early, but the reasons have very little to do with policy. It's more a function of markets favoring natural gas and renewable energy.
I've talked with plant owners who say they can shut down a coal plant, build a couple gas plants, produce a lot more electricity and still have room left over to put some solar panels and industrial park because they don't have to have all that room to store coal and coal ash after it's burned. So the economics just don't favor coal power plants right now.
Still, scientists say that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to reduce emissions a lot more, basically down to nothing, within about three decades. And many experts say it's difficult to see how that could happen without aggressive federal policies.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jeff Brady. Thank you.
BRADY: Thank you.
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