Federal Court Throws Out Trump Air Pollution Rule

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Trump’s fossil fuel-friendly ACE Rule that gave states power to regulate emissions and plant efficiency and repealed the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.
January 19, 2021

A federal appeals court has thrown out the Trump administration’s fossil fuel-friendly air pollution plan opposed by environmental groups in Indiana and the administration’s own U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated and remanded the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, a plan backed by former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill and 19 other Republican attorneys general, stating that the enactment of the rule and an embedded repeal of an Obama-era plan was based on a “mistaken reading of the Clean Air Act” that prolonged the public’s exposure to harmful pollutants.

The decision immediately repeals the ACE Rule and amendments that gave states more time to comply with the rule.

“Because the ACE Rule rests squarely on the erroneous legal premise that the statutory text expressly foreclosed consideration of measures other than those that apply at and to the individual source, we conclude that the EPA fundamentally ‘has misconceived the law,’ such that its conclusion ‘may not stand,’” the court wrote in its majority opinion. “Accordingly, we hold that the ACE Rule must be vacated and remanded to the EPA so that the Agency may ‘consider the question afresh in light of the ambiguity we see.’”

The EPA estimated that the ACE Rule could have led to 1,400 more premature deaths every year by 2030 and worsened the U.S. climate change situation by allowing electric generating units to continue to emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere.

When the ACE Rule was finalized in June 2019, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, said the ACE Rule would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 35% below 2005 levels by 2030, but that level would depend on states choosing to make and enforce those emissions reductions.

In 2005, the electricity generation sector emitted a near-historic 2,400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. A 35% reduction like Wheeler claimed would bring carbon dioxide emissions to 1,560 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, or slight less than the Clean Power Plan the ACE Rule sought to repeal and replace.

The Clean Power Plan sought a federally-imposed 32% drop in carbon pollution, 90% drop in sulfur dioxide and 72% drop in nitrogen oxide from 2005 levels.

Indiana and many other states sued to stop the implementation of the CPP. The Supreme Court issued a stay in February 2016, and the CPP was stuck in the courts until the Trump administration seemingly killed it with an official repeal that was made part of the ACE Rule.

The lawsuit that led to the decision was filed July 2019, when the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association sued to stop both the CPP repeal and the ACE Rule’s implementation. The groups argued that the EPA abdicated its legal duties and obligations to protect public health under the Clean Air Act.

The decision could help protect Hoosier health and the environment, as well as the state’s booming clean energy industry.

"Striking down the Trump EPA's very controversial ACE Rule gives the incoming Biden Administration a fresh start to forge a new, innovative policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The irony of the Trump EPA's policy is it really limited the number of ways that a utility could cut its greenhouse gas emissions — making the potential rule ineffective in its impact,” Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda told the Indiana Environmental Reporter in a statement.

“We hope that the Biden EPA's new rule on greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector results in Indiana's electric utilities making considerable new investments in energy efficiency, which will be a win for decarbonizing the power sector, a win for families who would like to see lower energy bills and a win for Indiana's 55,000+ strong energy efficiency job sector."

Environmental groups said the ruling would allow the incoming Biden administration to achieve its climate goals without having to deal with a major obstacle in the way of progress.

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit properly rejected and vacated the Trump EPA’s illegal Affordable Clean Energy Rule that undercut the agency’s responsibility under the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon pollution from coal plants,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. "This comprehensive court decision clears away the legal underbrush from the Trump administration’s obstructionism. The court’s decision clears the path for the Biden EPA to effectively implement the Clean Air Act to advance climate solutions and healthier clean air for all.”

President-elect Joe Biden has promised several executive actions on climate change during his first day in office, including rejoining the Paris Agreement and signing an executive order to formulate a plan to achieve 100% clean energy economy and net zero emissions by 2050.

Federal Court Throws Out Trump Air Pollution Rule