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Trump’s Coal Plan To Have Little Direct Effect on California

By David R. Baker, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

August 21, 2018

https://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Trump-s-coal-plan-to-have-…

President Trump’s plan to roll back one of his predecessor’s key climate change programs, governing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, will win few fans in Sacramento.

But it will likely have little direct effect on California, because the state’s regulations are tougher than the federal standards that the administration now wants to ease.

The long-awaited plan unveiled Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency would replace former President Barack Obama’s power-plant regulations with a looser system that give states more leeway in controlling emissions. Dubbed the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, the plan has been both attacked and praised as a way to keep coal-fired power plants open.

California, however, relies on coal for just 4 percent of its electricity, almost all of it supplied by coal-burning plants in other states. (Another 9 percent of the state’s electricity — all imported — comes from sources that can’t be identified by grid operators but likely include some coal plants.) California regulations effectively bar utility companies from signing new long-term power purchase contracts with coal-fired plants.

And the state’s climate policies, taken together, are considered more stringent than the Obama’s regulations, known as the Clean Power Plan.

California law, for example, requires utility companies to get half of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Last year, the sun, the wind, geothermal plants and small hydroelectric dams supplied 29 percent of all the state’s electricity.

Another California law, signed in 2016, requires the state to cut its overall greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030. The state has already met its first major greenhouse gas goal, cutting emissions back to the same level as in 1990, when California’s population and economy were both smaller.

“We’ve already met and exceeded our target under the Clean Power Plan, so this dirty energy scam is not going to set us off-course,” said Alex Jackson, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

The new EPA proposal won praise Tuesday from some business groups and conservative organizations that considered Obama’s Clean Power Plan both unnecessary and a prime example of federal overreach. Several noted that market forces are already cutting emissions from America’s electricity industry, now that natural gas costs less than coal, and solar and wind prices are falling.

“Today’s announcement is an important step toward a more collaborative process that fits within EPA’s statutory authority and will result in achievable progress through more practical, state-driven programs,” said Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, in a statement. “This revised approach will help continue the trend of lower electric power sector emissions while preserving America’s energy edge and respecting environmental law.”

California officials and the Trump administration are already warring over environmental policy on multiple fronts, with the administration recently moving to end California’s ability to set its own emission standards for cars. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Tuesday the state would continue arguing to keep the Clean Power Plan intact.

“Our families deserve clean air to breathe,” he said in a statement. “And our children deserve to know that we did everything possible to address the most pressing environmental issue of our time.”

The EPA’s move on Tuesday, however, could play into the debate over whether California should share control over its electricity grid with other states.

California legislators have less than two weeks to decide the fate of a bill — AB813 — that would create a regional organization to manage the grid in California and other western states that wanted to join. While backers see it as an efficient way to buy and sell renewable power across state lines, opponents fear sharing control with states that rely on coal-burning power plants, or in some cases, mine coal themselves.

Liza Tucker, with the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said the new EPA plan would give those states a green light to keep their coal plants running. Her group fears that a regional grid manager would force California to accept more coal-based power.

“This should be a wake-up call to lawmakers to understand the force of what they’re about to do,” she said. “We’re just going to be sabotaging ourselves.”

Jackson, however, argued that a regional grid organization could have the opposite effect, helping align neighboring states with California’s policies.

By forcing them to rein in power plant emissions, the Obama Clean Power Plan previously gave states an incentive to study and even adopt some of California’s policies. Removing it, Jackson said, eliminates that incentive.

“In its absence, I think the regional grid operator offers one of the few opportunities for California to exercise leadership beyond our borders,” he said.

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @DavidBakerSF

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