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U.S. EPA moves to kill power plant CO2 rules

Decline in nation’s coal use likely to continue despite Trump Administration effort

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
October 11, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 41

Solar panels in the Mojave Desert in the southwestern U.S.
Andrei Orlov/Shutterstock
Solar installation is outpacing construction of new coal plants worldwide, with advanced photovoltaic cells dependent on chemical industry innovations.

The Trump Administration’s recent steps to kill the Obama Administration’s regulations to curb power plant emissions are unlikely to stop a U.S. and international movement away from coal use. That’s the view of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a chemical industry trade association, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a scientific advocacy group.

In a report, UCS finds that the share of U.S. electricity coming from coal fell from 51% in 2008 to 31% in 2016, and of the coal units that remain, roughly one in four plan to retire or convert to natural gas. Another 17% are uneconomic and may soon face retirement.

ACC says with or without action by the Environmental Protection Agency, reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas releases are likely to continue, driven largely by market forces and state and regional emission control policies. Like UCS, the chemical makers’ group points to data showing sharp carbon dioxide declines from the electric power sector.

Similarly, an International Energy Agency study released earlier this month, finds that in 2016 for the first time worldwide new coal-fired plant installations were topped by photovoltaic solar panel capacity installations.

“We expect this trend to continue for many years to come,” ACC says.

ACC adds that chemical manufacturers have an essential role to play in future energy savings and CO2 emissions reductions, singling out the growing use and development of advanced plastic packaging, solar cells, and the many products that rely on chemistry.

But on Oct. 10, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he intends to withdraw and possibly replace two Obama regulations, together called the Clean Power Plan. This initiates a complex effort to fulfill President Donald J. Trump’s campaign promise to revitalize the U.S. coal industry

The Clean Power Plan calls for reduction of CO2 from fossil fuel energy generation facilities, leading to significant carbon reductions from coal-fired power plants.

It would cut U.S. CO2 emissions to 32% of 2005 levels by 2030, the level needed for the U.S. to comply with the 2015 international Paris climate change agreement. The regulation has yet to be implemented and is tied up in court with some 25 states opposing it and 18 in support.

President Trump announced in June his intention to withdraw from the Paris accord. Trump and Pruitt are skeptical about the relationship between human activities and climate change.

To withdraw the regulation, EPA will have to hold many public hearings, receive and assess millions of comments, and respond to likely litigation if the action is finalized.



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