The Big Rivers Electric Corp. power plant in Robards, Ky., on May 27. (Luke Sharrett/The New York Times)

Trump climate plan would give Georgia more flexibility

The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to replace a core set of Obama-era climate regulations with a less burdensome alternative that would “restore the rule of law” while providing “modern, reliable, and affordable energy for all Americans.”

The Trump administration’s new Affordable Clean Energy proposal would give states broad leeway to decide how much to regulate their coal-fired power plants. That’s a sharp contrast with President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan from 2015, which mandated steep reductions in carbon emissions for individual states.

“Today’s proposal provides the states and regulated community the certainty they need to continue environmental progress while fulfilling President Trump’s goal of energy dominance,” acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said.

Few details were immediately available about how the plan, if finalized, would specifically affect Georgia.

The proposal must undergo a 60-day public comment period and be finalized before states are given three years to pitch their compliance plans to the feds. Lawsuits from environmental groups and Democratic attorneys general are also likely.

“We have just begun reading through it to find out what the proposed replacement rule is,” said Karen Hays, the chief of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Air Protection Branch. “We will go through that process as quickly as we can and then determine whether or not Georgia wants to submit comments or has questions we want to send to EPA regarding the proposal.”

‘Energy destiny’

Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump vowed to revive the country’s declining coal business. He blamed much of the industry’s woes on his predecessor’s regulatory policies, and he quickly pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement.

But economics have also compelled utilities such as Georgia Power to decrease their use of coal in favor of cheap natural gas and increasingly accessible renewables, and that trend will likely be hard to reverse.

Coal accounted for 28 percent of Georgia’s net electricity generation in 2016, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, sharply down from previous decades. That same year, 40 percent of the state’s electricity was fueled by gas, 26 percent from nuclear power and 6 percent from renewable sources.

There are five coal plants currently operational in Georgia.

Despite coal’s decline, Georgia fought hard against Obama’s climate regulations, and Tuesday’s news drew compliments from many of the state’s Republicans who were sharply critical of Obama’s strategy.

U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue hailed the Trump plan for its flexibility. Several members of Georgia’s Public Service Commission said decisions about the state’s energy mix were best made in the state, not by the federal government.

“Giving states more control over their energy destiny makes sense to me,” said Tim Echols, the vice chairman of the PSC, which oversees the state’s utilities. “The EPA Clean Power Plan was flawed in that it represented a wealth transfer from Southern states to others like California by putting a value on (carbon dioxide).”

The proposal was quickly panned by environmental groups, which saw it as a giveaway to big polluters. Many warned it would allow aging coal plants to run longer, prompting thousands of additional premature deaths and cases of asthma while moving the U.S. backward in the fight against climate change.

“Continued reliance on 19th century fuel sources is a recipe for disaster, especially when we have cleaner, safer 21st century technologies,” said Jennette Gayer, the director of Environment Georgia.

Amanda Garcia, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said, “The only beneficiaries are coal-burning utilities that have been polluting our Southeastern states for decades.”

EPA officials said the new plan would lead to many of the same environmental benefits sought by the Obama administration but in a way that would delegate more authority to the states.

Legal battles

The office of Gov. Nathan Deal did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but his administration spearheaded many of the state’s climate battles with the Obama administration.

Georgia joined more than two-dozen mostly Republican states that sued the EPA in 2015 to overturn the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of Obama’s quest to fight climate change using authority from the Clean Air Act.

Before the Supreme Court blocked it from going into effect, the blueprint would have required Georgia to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2030.

Boosters had framed the Obama regulations as an ambitious first step toward curtailing climate change that would also help create jobs in the clean energy sector. But critics said the plan exceeded the EPA’s legal authority and would drive up energy costs for businesses and low- and middle-income customers.

“We worry it will be harmful to Georgia’s economy,” said Judson Turner, then the head of Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it in the best way that’s mindful to Georgia’s business climate.”

Georgia similarly sued to block EPA regulations regulating new power plants and small patches of water.

Georgia Power, the state’s largest provider of electricity, said Tuesday that it was reviewing the details of Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy plan. The company in recent years has shifted its portfolio toward natural gas and nuclear power as it’s prepared to bring two new generating units online at Plant Vogtle.

“Southern Co. supports a constructive and durable rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that is consistent with the Clean Air Act,” spokesman Schuyler Baehman said, referring to Georgia Power’s parent company.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.