Those who feared the Clean Power Plan the most worried coal plants would blink out one by one, like busted bulbs on a string of Christmas lights.
But on Jan. 20, when President Donald Trump was sworn into office, those fears subsided. President Obama’s signature climate change policy disintegrated as it was tied up in courts, likely to never be implemented.
The court delays were incumbent on a new plan though, and so earlier this week, the Trump administration made a first step to building its own version.
The implications of curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants are serious for Wyoming and its coal companies, not so much because the state gets more than 90 percent of its power from coal plants – the biggest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions — but because it digs a lot of coal.
Few people in Wyoming can say with confidence what the Trump remake will look like from the advanced notice of proposed rule making that came out Monday. An advanced notice is an early signal that an agency is considering a rule and is looking for public feedback.
Some of the language suggests that if the administration were to write a regulation limiting carbon dioxide emissions, it would focus solely on power plants, as opposed to the broader limitations on state-by-state emissions under the Obama-era plan. Others see it as a strategy to keep the Clean Power Plan in a legal limbo. Environmental groups expect the slow promulgation of an industry-friendly rule that fails to alleviate concerns about climate change.
“Lots to look at but no real meat here to figure out what a plan would look like,” said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming. “It seems pretty clear the EPA plans to go back to square one.”
Wyoming’s industries and governor aren’t sure about a possible new rule, focusing more on what they don’t like about the old one.
“Looking forward, if [the Environmental Protection Agency] crafts something, what would Wyoming want to see? I can’t answer that,” said Colin McKee, policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead. “It’s premature for me to say anything because I don’t know what [the governor’s] thoughts are.”
In addition to arguing the Clean Power Plan was unlawful, the governor said that the focus should be to promote carbon capture to address coal’s emissions concerns as opposed to regulations, McKee said. That’s still his position.
The coal industry itself doesn’t have a unified stance on what it wants as a replacement, according to Travis Deti, executive director for the Wyoming Mining Association, other than its hopes for flexible rules that don’t eliminate coal.
“It’s fair to say that the carbon dioxide issue is not going away,” he said.
What the industry does want is a replacement rule that has staying power from one political administration to the next, he said.
Like the governor, Deti said the answer is in technology that captures emissions.
But some doubt the intention of this administration to craft such a long-standing rule, and see the notice published Monday as more evidence of that.
“When you look at the content (of the notice), what becomes really clear is what they are trying to do is a rule that will give industry cover to do nothing,” said Joanne Spalding, chief climate counsel for the Sierra Club.
Most of the issues brought up recall lingering debates, like which section of the Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency the right to regulate carbon dioxide, she said.
“All of this is rehashing issues that were raised (in the public process),” she said.
Sam Kalen, co-director of the Center for Law and Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming, said the notice is likely a strategy that buys EPA some time before it has to come up with a rule.
“Optically, it helps justify keeping, effectively, the Clean Power Plan from ever becoming operational,” Kalen said. “This allows them to illustrate in a litigation setting and in the public setting, ‘We aren’t ignoring it, we are doing something.’”
It’s less clear what exactly that something is.
Like the Sierra Club lawyer, Kalen said the notice does point to a potential return of legal debates that have come up before. The notices emphasizes state flexibility and may point to questions from this administration about the legality of regulating beyond the power plant level – a key disagreement between the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law and the interpretation from states like Wyoming. The notice even touches on the endangerment finding, the legal foundation for regulating carbon dioxide.
What it doesn’t do is offer a clear glimpse of what a replacement of the Clean Power Plan will look like, Kalen said.
“I think that we really don’t know yet, to be honest.”