The Environmental Protection Agency will allow states to set their own emission standards for coal-fueled power plants under the newly proposed Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule. The plan, announced Tuesday, will "establish guidelines for states" to use when setting limits for greenhouse gases, the agency said in a statement. Critics say the decision will result in the release of much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
By the EPA's own estimate, according to its a 289-page risk analysis, the additional pollution will result in up to 1,400 more premature deaths a year as of 2030. By the same year, the Obama administration's Clean Air Plan, which the new rule will replace, would have avoided 3,600 premature deaths due to pollution from coal-fired power plants.
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The President who talked about ending "the war on beautiful, clean coal" in this year's State of the Union address is replacing one of the Obama administration's signature climate change policies which the EPA referred to as "overly prescriptive and burdensome." The announcement comes on the heels of plans to weaken fuel economy targets and a revision of coal ash regulations.
Environmental experts and medical associations agree that such a move could be detrimental to America's health.
"With today's proposal, President Trump and Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler abandon much-needed public health safeguards against power plant pollution, placing the health of all Americans at risk, and especially those who are most vulnerable, including children, older adults, and people with asthma and heart disease," said Harold P. Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a statement. "Today's proposal is a dangerous substitute for the Clean Power Plan and a careless giveaway to polluters that will delay meaningful progress in the future."
The Obama-era Clean Power Plan set a standard aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. It made those emissions federally regulated for the first time
Power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, making up roughly a third of the domestic greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The plants also create large amounts of fine particulate matter. The particles can get trapped deep in the lungs, causing breathing problems, heart disease and inflammation.
Exposure to air pollution is known to lead to a host of health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, bone loss, blood vessel damage, inflammation, cognitive issues and even death.
In 2016, the Supreme Court blocked the Obama regulation, but some plants had already started to work on reducing pollution.
With the repeal of the regulation, that progress is most likely going to stop, experts say, and that will hurt the country's health.
"There is no such thing as a safe level of pollution. It's that simple. Any pollution is bad. There is no doubt about this," said Dr. Andrea Baccarelli, chairman of the Environmental Health Sciences Department at Columbia University, adding that reducing the standard by any amount will have negative health consequences. "It's clear that relaxing the standards could cost lives."
The country has had a much better track record on regulating pollution in recent decades.
"Across the country, it's remarkable what we've been able to do in the last 40 years, and there's substantial evidence of improvement, which has a large impact on our health," said C. Arden Pope III, an air pollution expert and the Mary Lou Fulton Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University. "Rolling back these pollution standards puts our progress at risk. At worst, progress could be reversed."
Reducing pollution lowers people's risk for disease and even increases life expectancy, studies show. But lowering the standards by replacing the Clean Power Plan with something less stringent will bring an estimated 36,000 additional deaths and an estimated 630,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children over a decade, according to one analysis published in June in the medical journal JAMA. That, some experts said, is probably a conservative estimate.
"I'm a little skeptical about quantifying the health impact. We have models that can show range, but certainly this will have a negative health impact, no matter what the number," said Tom McGarity, an environmental law expert and the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Administrative Law at the University of Texas. "There is no question a rollback will have a negative impact on mortality."
Some of these "big dirties," as the old polluting plants are called, lack the technology to reduce the amount of pollution they create according to McGarity. They will probably stick around a lot longer with the Trump administration's plans -- and will continue to contribute to climate change, increasing incidents of heat stroke, tropical disease and wildfires.
Natural gas and renewable energies like solar and wind have come down in price which has slowed the need for coal.
"But as the administration is doing everything in its power to keep the coal industry alive, we will still see a negative impact on health," McGarity said.