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Sharp Decline in Climate Pollution from Power Plants, Even Under Trump

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Exactly one week after his inauguration, President Joe Biden issued an executive order promising to tackle climate change. He set a goal of making all electricity generation in the U.S. free of carbon dioxide pollution by the year 2035.

“In my view, we’ve already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis,” Biden said at a press conference on January 27. “We can’t wait any longer. We see it with our own eyes. We feel it. We know it in our bones. And it’s time to act.”

His plans to move away from coal, oil, and other fossil fuels were immediately criticized as impractical and even dangerous. One example was this Fox News segment, which suggested that electricity prices would skyrocket and thousands of people would lose their jobs and even die.

“Now President Joe Biden is looking to crack down on climate change with a slew of executive actions,” the host announced. “And not only have they already cost American jobs, experts say those green policies could cost you, too.”

Except -- we’ve seen this movie before, and it didn’t end that way.  

That’s because back in 2015, President Obama imposed more modest regulations for reducing carbon dioxide pollution from power plants called the Clean Power Plan. The Obama plan called a 32 percent reduction in emissions from power plants over a quarter century, using a baseline year of 2005 and comparing that to the year 2030.

Obama’s plan – like Biden’s --- was blasted by fossil fuel industries and Republicans in Congress as impossible and reckless. Twenty-eight states, led by West Virginia and Texas, sued in federal court to stop the Clean Power Plan, and in 2016, they won a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The controversial Obama rules were never implemented. But despite this, new EPA data show that greenhouse gas pollution from the power industry actually fell 38 percent between 2005 and 2020. That exceeded Obama’s goal of 32 percent, and achieved the target a decade early.

And none of the predicted calamities occurred. The power outages that Texas suffered during the snowstorm last week, for example, were caused more by unregulated fossil fuel power companies that failed to prepare for extreme weather than by any federal clean energy rules.

Stranger yet, the new EPA data show that carbon dioxide pollution from power plants fell even more rapidly under the four years of the Trump Administration than under past administrations, despite Trump’s relentless promotion of fossil fuels.

EPA data show a 21 percent drop in greenhouse gases from the power industry from 2016 to 2020 under Trump, compared to a 17 percent decline from 2005 to 2015, mostly under Obama, as well as under President George W. Bush.

How could this be – an acceleration of climate progress under Trump, who famously called climate change a “hoax?” The COVID-19 recession during the last year of Trump’s administration does not really explain the difference, because electricity usage dropped only three percent from 2019 to 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Even between 2016 to 2019, before the recession, greenhouse gas pollution from power plants dropped 11 percent.

The answer is that technological advances in the natural gas, solar, and wind industries drove down prices for these cleaner sources of electricity. At the same time, the costs associated with burning coal to generate electricity gradually increased because of environmental regulations on coal ash, coal plant wastewater, mercury and other air pollutants that pre-dated Trump. Trump tried to repeal many of these rules, but failed when challenged in court.

And so about 100 coal-fired power plant units closed during Trump’s term. Many generators switched to cheaper natural gas, solar or wind, which drove down emissions of greenhouse gases.

Overall, between 2010 and 2020, the use of renewable sources like wind or solar to generate electricity tripled in the U.S., while the burning of natural gas rose 64 percent and the use of coal fell by 58 percent, according to data from the Energy Information Administration.

The bottom line: Even though Obama’s Clean Power Plan was attacked and blocked by the courts as too radical – in reality, cleaner energy technology is advancing far more rapidly than anyone predicted. And that is a good sign for President Biden’s seemingly even more radical plans for zero-carbon power.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.