Biden administration ditches Obama’s Clean Power Plan to pursue more ambitious regulations

The Biden administration said this week it will not try to resurrect the Clean Power Plan, a controversial Obama-era policy that set climate pollution targets for every state’s electricity sector and gave officials flexibility on how they would make those reductions by the end of the decade, the Washington Post reported.

Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a federal judicial filing, the Biden administration is seeking a court’s blessing to propose a new rule aimed at limiting greenhouse gas pollution from the nation’s power plants, which represent the second-largest source of emissions.

“As a practical matter, the reinstatement of the [Clean Power Plan] would not make sense,” Joseph Goffman, the acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, wrote in an accompanying memo to the agency’s regional offices. He noted that the deadline for states to submit their plans had passed and that “ongoing changes in electricity generation” mean the goals of the Obama-era regulation already had been met.

The Clean Power Plan –– finalized in 2014 as the Obama administration’s calling card to the Paris climate agreement –– was a regulation that sought to reduce carbon pollution from power plants by imposing federal emissions limits on carbon dioxide emissions. The restrictions would also reduce the levels of several other harmful criteria pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

The plan ran into trouble in 2016 when Republicans attorneys general and fossil industry interests filed a lawsuit arguing that Obama’s EPA was overstepping its authority under the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court halted enforcement of the plan until lower courts ruled on its legality.

It was further hobbled under the Trump administration, which sought to replace its own more lenient rule, which Trump’s EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, signed in June 2019, saying that it would lower electricity costs.

But the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated that effort, saying the goal of the Trump administration’s EPA had been “to slow the process for reduction of emissions,” and the court called that “arbitrary and capricious.” The three-judge panel said “the central operative terms” of the Trump rule “hinged on a fundamental misconstruction” of the Clean Air Act.

While the Biden administration hasn’t spelled out precisely what its own replacement for the Clean Power Plan will be, but the White House has already made clear its plans

to aggressively curb greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, which has done more to cut its carbon output than any other part of the U.S. economy. More broadly, the Biden administration intends to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050.

In its judicial filing, the EPA acknowledged that it is obligated to regulate emissions from electric-generating plants under the Clean Air Act and said it intends to “consider the question afresh.” Biden’s pick to lead the EPA, Michael Regan, made a similar point in his Senate confirmation hearing this month.

Regan added that he plans to convene people from across the spectrum with a stake in how the EPA oversees the power sector to “think about how we harness the power and the statutory authority of the Clean Air Act in concert with major investments that we should see government-wide and the input and the statements from those who will be impacted by any potential actions we take.”