Critics say the move is a major step backwards that will damage health and the environment. The desperate bid to save coal fired plants comes as the electricity industry is moving towards natural gas and renewables.
The Trump administration on Tuesday unveiled new rules to replace Obama-era regulations on coal-fired power plants, in a move that critics said deals a blow to health and the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new rules that would give states broad discretion in how and to what degree they regulate coal power plants, rather than be subject to federal guidelines.
The Trump administration's Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE) would replace former president Barack Obama's 2015 Clean Power Plan, which the EPA described as "overly prescriptive and burdensome" for states and the economy.
"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," said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist nominated to head the EPA after Scott Pruitt resigned amid multiple conflict of interest scandals.
The proposal is the latest move by the Trump administration to unravel environmental regulations, including rolling back vehicle emission standards. The president has already pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.
The EPA said the plan could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 33 or 34 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels and provide $400 million (€345 million) in annual net benefits.
Exit from coal underway
Environmental groups pointed out that by the end of 2017 carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector were already down 28 percent from 2005 levels, meaning the country is only a short distance away from the goals of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan with 13 years still to go.
"This Dirty Power Plan is riddled with gimmicks and giveaways. It would mean more climate-changing pollution from power plants. That's a recipe for climate disaster," said Rhea Suh, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "What America needs instead is an even stronger Clean Power Plan," Suh said.
The Obama administration's Clean Power Plan has been put on hold since 2016 after pro-coal states and industry challenged it in the courts.
While coal accounts for about one-third of US electricity production, the power industry has already in recent years shifted from coal to cleaner natural gas and renewables due to cheaper prices.
And no new coal plants are planned to go online, not only due to market conditions but also because the industry has taken into account risks associated with anticipated tighter future coal regulations.
The Trump administration's new plans mean that the life of aging, dirtier coal power plants may be extended, despite about 15 percent of coal-fired power plants having been retired in the past five years.
Michelle Bloodworth, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal lobby group, welcomed the EPA plan.
"The Clean Power Plan would have caused more fuel-secure coal-fired power plants to retire prematurely even though policy makers have become increasingly concerned that coal retirements are a threat to grid resilience and national security," she said.
Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Trump administration's plan would likely increase greenhouse gas emissions while doing nothing to change the long-term shift away from coal.
"This will do little to bring back coal-fired power, which is increasingly uneconomic compared to wind, solar and natural gas. If the administration is sincere about wanting to help coal miners, they should help coal communities diversify their local economies and provide transition assistance and worker retraining," he said.
Kimmell said the EPA's proposal over calculates the economic benefits while ignoring costs to the environment and health.
"Underpinning the proposal is blatantly crooked math that attempts to undercount the significant public health and economic benefits of cutting carbon pollution as well as the other air pollutants, such as soot and smog, that are produced when fossil fuels are burned," he said.
"This proposal would also result in more pollution from nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury and other harmful pollutants," he added.
Tuesday's EPA announcement opens a 60 day public-comment period before finalization.