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EPA moves against Clean Power Plan. What does that mean for California?

On Tuesday the Trump Administration announced it would repeal yet another one of President Obama’s signature environmental regulations, this one designed to cut climate change-causing pollution emitted by power plants.

But the repeal will have little material impact on states like California, which have their own policies to slash carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists say California is already experiencing the effects of climate change, through warmer winters, hotter summers, rising sea levels and longer fire seasons.

What is the Clean Power Plan?

Issued  in 2015 by the Obama Administration,  the Clean Power Plan sought to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

In creating the plan, the Environmental Protection Agency told every state it had to cut its CO2 emissions by a certain amount. Some states, like Montana or North Dakota, that are very dependent on coal-fired electricity, had to cut their emissions by over 40 percent. States like California that get very little of their electricity from coal had to cut much less, just 13 percent.

States had options on how to cut their emissions. They could shift their electricity production away from coal and towards natural gas, which emits much less carbon dioxide, or renewable energy like wind or solar, which emits none. Or they could boost energy efficiency.

Did it ever take effect?

No. Immediately after the rule was announced, 27 states sued to overturn it -- including Oklahoma, where current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was the attorney general at the time. The lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in February 2016, the court put the implementation of the regulation on hold. Currently, the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing the case.

In March 2017, President Trump signed an executive order saying he wanted the Clean Power Plan repealed. Pruitt's October 10 announcement of the repeal is the EPA’s first step in that direction. 

So, does the repeal matter?

It depends on what state you live in. Repealing the Clean Power Plan won’t affect California’s ability to cut its carbon dioxide emissions, because the state already has very ambitious policies to get more electricity from renewable sources and to boost energy efficiency -- policies that are not affected by action at the federal level. The state expects these will result in much greater reductions in emissions than its requirement under the Clean Power Plan. 

California gets just four percent of its electricity from coal -- far less than most other states.
California Energy Commission
California gets just four percent of its electricity from coal -- far less than most other states.

However, states like North Dakota,  for example, that haven't been as ambitious as California would have been required to deeply cut emissions from their power sector under the Clean Power Plan. Now, they won’t have to. And that likely means their carbon dioxide emissions won't fall as fast as they would have under the plan.

Tell me more about what California is doing to cut its carbon dioxide emissions.

California’s power sector has been getting cleaner for years. A 2006 rule made it all but impossible for utilities to make long-term investments in coal-fired power plants, which lead to a steep drop off in electricity generated by coal. In 2016, the state got just four percent of its power from coal, down from 18 percent in 2008. 

California also has an an ambitious renewable portfolio standard that requires utilities to get 50 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Currently, California gets just over half of its electricity from natural gas and about 30 percent from renewables, mostly solar. In the 2017 legislative session, a proposal by state Sen.  Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) to require California to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045 failed. But expect to see similar proposals again in the future.

What about cars and trucks?

Transportation makes up the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in California, and it’s a much more difficult sector to tackle than electricity generation. That’s because regulators are trying to change the buying decisions of 40 million people, rather than about 100 utilities.

But there are a number of rules on the books trying to do just that. The California Air Resources Board has a goal of getting 1.5 million electric cars on the road by 2025. To get there, auto manufacturers are required to sell an increasing percentage of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles every year. There are also state tax incentives to help people purchase clean vehicles.  

Other rules target the fuel burned in those cars. Some kinds of petroleum require more energy to produce than others, and the the Low Carbon Fuel Standard requires refiners to slowly transition to less-carbon intensive oil by 2020.

In addition, the state’s cap and trade program -- where companies are required to buy permits to pollute --  now includes companies that distribute gasoline. That means they have to buy permits that account for each ton of carbon emitted by people who buy their product.

The money generated by the purchase of those carbon permits is increasingly going into getting more electric trucks and buses on the road.

So is California on track to meet its Clean Power Plan target, even if the Clean Power Plan doesn’t exist?

Yes. California and 13 other states have announced they are committed to meeting their original EPA emissions reductions targets anyway. 

So what happens now with the rule?

First, the EPA has to publish a notice of repeal in the Federal Register. Then, the public has 60 days to weigh in on the proposal. If the agency goes ahead with the repeal, lawsuits are likely. The EPA is obligated to regulate carbon dioxide pollution and may have to come up with a replacement for the Clean Power Plan.