Science Policy & Funding News

Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration’s Emissions Rollbacks

The suit argues that the administration is failing to curb carbon dioxide emissions as required under the Clean Air Act.


On 13 August, a coalition of states and cities sued the Trump administration over new regulations on power plants that would weaken emissions restrictions proposed by the Obama administration.

The 22 states and seven cities filing suit assert that the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule put in place by the Trump administration fails to take the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They argue that under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for setting limits on greenhouse gases.

The ACE Rule has much weaker regulations on national carbon emissions than the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. Under the ACE Rule, there is no emissions cap, individual states decide whether to lower emissions, and the rule focuses on improvements to increase efficiency at coal plants rather than transitioning to renewables or investing in carbon capture.

The new rule will decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 0.7% by 2030, according to an EPA assessment noted in a statement from New York attorney general Letitia James. The Obama-era Clean Power Plan would have reduced carbon emissions by 19%.

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory called the rule “obviously a protection for the fossil fuel industry” and voiced support for the lawsuit. (Kalmus did not speak on behalf of his employer.)

The ACE Rule “is a draconian, backwards step, 180 degrees in the opposite direction to where science indicates we must go,” Kalmus told Eos.

Peter de Menocal, the Dean of Science at Columbia University, also spoke in favor of the lawsuit, because aggressive emissions cuts will be needed to stay below the target warming threshold of 1.5°–2°C.

“I am hoping, praying actually, that the states prevail in their challenge of this proposed rollback,” de Menocal told Eos. “It is vitally important that we urgently and significantly accelerate emissions reductions.”

EPA Responsibility

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler told the New York Times in June that he stands behind the new plan. “We’re on the right side of history,” he said. “It’s Congress’s role to draft statutes, not the regulatory agencies.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must use the “best system of emissions reduction” to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA regulates air pollutants that risk human health, and a case heard by the Supreme Court in 2006 affirmed that carbon dioxide is included as an air pollutant.

Julie McNamara, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Eos that limiting greenhouse gas emissions falls well within the purview of the EPA, whose mission is to protect human health and the environment. She called for the agency to take action, as human health and safety are increasingly at risk from climate change.

“It’s here, it’s happening,” McNamara said of climate change. She mentioned the recent record-breaking heat waves that swept the globe this summer.

“Right when communities across the country are reeling from the effects and its impacts are worsening and looming on the horizon,” she said, “we have our Environmental Protection Agency throwing up its hands.”

Karl R. Rábago, a professor of law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, told Eos that the lawsuit is a positive step forward.

“The administration seems bent on allowing any state to become a pollution haven,” Rábago said. “Since the current EPA won’t follow science or the law, the courts are the right next step.”

Questions on the Future of Coal

The lawsuit comes at a time when the future of coal investment is under fire. Firms in the United States have started to divest from coal projects, and there are calls for the American company AGI to rescind insurance coverage for a prominent Australian coal mine.

The ACE Rule keeps the door open for future investments of coal, which Wheeler acknowledged when the rule went into effect in June 2019.

“I don’t know who is going to invest in a new coal-fired power plant, but we’re leveling the playing field to allow that investment to occur,” said Wheeler, as reported in the New York Times.

McNamara said that future investments would be better spent replacing aging coal plants with renewables, which can be cheaper for utilities and customers alike.

“This rule would drive an investment in coal plants that are on their last legs,” she said. “That’s not building towards the future, that’s trying to hang on to a rapidly eroding past.”

Kalmus voiced concerns about human health effects of continued coal use. “There is no such thing as ‘clean coal,’” he said. “Even setting aside its climate impact, coal is by far the deadliest way to produce electricity due to its public health impact.”

Fate of Lawsuit Unclear

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia Circuit, could possibly be heard before the Supreme Court. The ruling could have far-reaching effects on the extent that federal regulations can direct energy policy. The Supreme Court struck down the Clean Power Plan in 2016.

New York attorney general Letitia James (D) said in a statement that the coalition bringing the lawsuit “will fight back against this unlawful, do-nothing rule in order to protect our future from catastrophic climate change.” A group of ten public interest groups submitted a separate petition against the ACE rule on 14 August.

EPA spokesman Michael Abboud addressed the pending lawsuit in a statement reported by the Washington Post: “EPA worked diligently to ensure we produced a solid rule, that we believe will be upheld in the courts, unlike the previous Administration’s Clean Power Plan.”

—Jenessa Duncombe (@jrdscience), News Writing and Production Fellow

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2019), Lawsuit challenges Trump administration’s emissions rollbacks, Eos, 100, Published on 14 August 2019.
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