BLOOMINGTON, Indiana – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says a new rule will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-powered generating units and power plants across the country. But critics and the EPA itself say it could increase air pollution and endanger lives in Indiana and across the nation.
Announced Aug. 21, the EPA’s Affordable Clean Energy Rule replaces the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The CPP sought to bring carbon pollution down by 32 percent, sulfur dioxide emissions down by 90 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions down by 72 percent by the year 2030, but was never implemented. Without explanation, the U.S. Supreme Court halted CPP implementation in 2016. The ACE rule sets emissions guidelines and then allows states to develop their own plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA now says the ACE rule eliminates “overly prescriptive and burdensome” requirements that “exceeded EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act.”
“The ACE Rule would restore the rule of law and empower states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide modern, reliable, and affordable energy for all Americans,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a press release. “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.”
The ACE plan is much less ambitious than CPP and gives states more discretion on emission decisions, said Janet McCabe, director of policy and implementation for Indiana University’s Environmental Resiliency Institute. McCabe is a former acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation and played a lead role in drafting the CPP.
“What they’re saying is here’s a menu of things that a plant can do on its site to be more efficient, and states are going to engage in a process for each one of the coal-fired plants in a state and decide which of those things are reasonable to ask,” she said. “You can consider things like cost and how much life expectancy of the plant and other things, so it’s possible that under this plan a state could require nothing to be done.”
By the EPA’s own estimates, the additional pollution allowed by the ACE rule would result in up to 1,400 more premature deaths every year by 2030. The CPP was projected to reduce up to 3,600 air pollution-related premature deaths.
“In the view of many people that is not an appropriate interpretation of the Clean Air Act, whose purpose is to protect public health and welfare and make sensible judgments about what’s reasonable and cost effective with an eye towards protecting public health,” McCabe said. “The analysis that has come along with this proposal shows that it’s possible that this rule may result in more pollution and more premature death than the Clean Power Plan would have. In this case there is much less benefit and more adverse impacts.”
"A city like Indianapolis has some of the worst air quality of a major city in the United States...It’s as if we are all smoking nine packs of cigarettes a year."
– Gabriel Filippelli, IUPUI Center for Urban Health
Air pollution can lead to or aggravate many serious pulmonary and cardiovascular health problems, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, cancer or even death. The ACE rule could result in the premature deaths of thousands of Indiana residents in the next few decades and beyond. Researchers at the Purdue Climate Change Research Center found that rising temperatures and worsened air quality due to climate change could result in up to 15,000 more heat-related premature deaths in the U.S. annually. The ACE rule could make the air quality worse in Indiana, especially in industrial centers like those found in Indianapolis. Gabriel Filippelli, director of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Center for Urban Health, said children and the elderly would face the most impact.
“A city like Indianapolis has some of the worst air quality of a major city in the United States. You can actually do a direct calculation how much that is in smoking to a person,” Filippelli said. “It’s as if we are all smoking nine packs of cigarettes a year. Think of a little kid smoking nine packs of cigarettes. It’s a pretty sad state. So our air quality is already pretty low, meaning the amounts of contaminants are already kind of high in our city. All this does is increase that impact from a health standpoint.”
Ten national health and medical groups, including the American Lung Association, have come out against the ACE rule.
“In addition to the immediate damage that this proposal would cause to human health, failing to address the pollution causing climate change will have lasting health consequences,” the groups said in a joint statement. “The longer our nation's leaders delay action to clean up the pollutants driving climate change, the greater the health costs will be from wildfires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events.”
The ACE rule still faces several hurdles before being implemented. The rule must first be entered into the Federal Register. The public will then have 60 days to submit comment. McCabe said even if the ACE rule is implemented, people still have a chance to make a difference.
“I’d really encourage people to both contribute their views on these federal policies but also advocate on local policies. Write a letter to your local paper, go to a public meeting, help encourage your city. These things matter to us because we live in these communities,” McCabe said. “We have to watch out for each other. And government can help with that.”