Trump EPA claims new power plant rule would improve health of minority and low-income communities. Don’t believe it.

Media are missing the environmental justice story behind Trump's Affordable Clean Energy rule.

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SOURCEMedia Matters
Image credit: Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

On June 19, the Trump administration announced that it was officially replacing the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s 2015 policy for curbing carbon pollution from power plants, with a much weaker Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule. The text of the new rule claims that it will “improve environmental justice communities’ health,” but recently published research found that in many states it could actually lead to increases in air pollution, which would have especially negative health effects on communities of color and low-income populations.

The ACE rollout is a major environmental justice story, but that’s being missed by most media outlets.

Trump’s power plant rule could increase air pollution in many states, hurting vulnerable communities

The text of the ACE rule says it is not expected to have notable negative effects on minority and low-income communities, and in fact, it will have positive ones:

The EPA believes that this action is unlikely to have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples … The EPA believes that this action will achieve CO2 emission reductions resulting from implementation of these final guidelines, as well as ozone and PM2.5 emission reductions as a cobenefit, and will further improve environmental justice communities’ health as discussed in the [regulatory impact analysis].

But recent scientific research calls this claim into question. A study published earlier this year by scientists from Harvard, Boston University, and other institutions found that the ACE rule could lead to increased emissions of the air pollutants sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in about 20 states. As E&E News explained when the study was released, “The proposed Affordable Clean Energy rule’s focus on cutting emissions through efficiency improvements could cause emissions to increase at 28 percent of regulated power plants, as more efficient plants run more frequently and states delay retirement of older, dirtier plants, according to the study.”

At least one Trump official has acknowledged this. “A senior administration official … confirmed Wednesday that some plants may end up emitting more pollutants under the rule,” The Washington Post reported last week.

The health effects could be notable, as study co-author Jonathan Buonocore told E&E: “These pollutants contribute to PM 2.5 [fine particles] and ozone, with health effects including increased risk of premature death, respiratory disease, heart attack and some neuro-cognitive diseases as well.” Fine particulate pollution is linked to tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. each year, according to a separate study released this spring.

When the ACE rule was proposed in August 2018, the EPA’s own analysis estimated that it would result in 470 to 1,400 additional premature deaths a year by 2030 because of increased fine particulate pollution compared to expected pollution levels under Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

The negative ramifications of the ACE rule are likely to fall especially hard on vulnerable populations, as a disproportionate amount of harmful health effects from air pollution occur in low-income communities and communities of color. Last year, EPA scientists published a study that found that people of color in the U.S. are exposed to more air pollution than white people, with African Americans exposed to the most. A number of other studies have documented the outsized and negative health effects of air pollution on minority and low-income communities.

The Trump administration argued that Obama’s Clean Power Plan would have hurt people of color

When the Trump EPA first proposed replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with the ACE rule last August, it tried to paint the policy shift as good for communities of color by arguing that the Clean Power Plan would have hurt them.

Draft administration talking points from the release of the ACE proposal cited a thoroughly debunked and discredited 2015 study from an industry-funded front group, the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), to claim that the Clean Power Plan “would increase Black poverty by 23 percent and Hispanic poverty by 26 percent” and would result in “cumulative job losses of 7 million for Blacks and nearly 12 million for Hispanics in 2035.” 

The NBCC study’s numerous flaws were exposed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, while flaws in other reports that the NBCC study had relied on were explained by PolitiFactThe Washington Post (twice), and the Union of Concerned Scientists again.

Environmental justice advocates rejected the NBCC’s claims. As Jalonne L. White-Newsome, then of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, wrote in 2015 after Obama’s Clean Power Plan was finalized, “Despite continuous rhetoric from the Koch brothers’ network, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and others claiming that the CPP would hurt minority communities, we knew that if the final plan were crafted with equity in mind, it could be a huge win for low-income communities and communities of color.” She and other activists worked with Obama’s EPA to create a plan that took environmental justice seriously.

Environmental justice advocates blasted the Trump EPA’s ACE power plant rule

Proponents of environmental justice have consistently rejected the Trump administration’s moves to repeal the Clean Power Plan and replace it with the ACE rule.

Alice Kaswan, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and an expert on environmental justice, critiqued the draft ACE rule after it was released last year:

Ultimately, EPA’s proposal fails to grapple with what matters to disadvantaged communities. Energy justice implicates not only the monthly bill, but access to new technologies, relief from pollution and its health consequences, and participation in a cleaner energy economy. The narrowly focused ACE fails to facilitate a clean energy transition that could benefit all Americans.

And last week, GreenLatinos President & CEO Mark Magaña denounced the Trump administration’s finalization of ACE:

There is a good chance that those lives lost will come from Latinx or African American communities. The risks are too high when our communities are more exposed to air pollutants than white communities. We already know that Latinx children are 40% more likely to die from asthma than non-Latinx white children.

By rolling back the Clean Power Plan, the EPA continues to abdicate its mission to protect human and environmental health. Instead, it works on behalf of the fossil fuel barons who have made deep inroads into the upper echelons of the Trump administration. In the end, the Affordable Clean Energy rule will increase the risks from climate change for everyone and particularly harm vulnerable communities around the country. That’s a story media outlets ought to be telling.

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