The Environmental Protection Agency acted again Thursday to ease rules on the sagging U.S. coal industry, this time scaling back what would have been a tough control on climate-changing emissions from any new coal plants.
The latest Trump administration targeting of legacy Obama administration efforts to slow climate change comes in the wake of multiplying warnings from the agency's scientists and others about the accelerating pace of global warming.
In a ceremony Thursday at the agency, acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler signed a proposal to dismantle a 2015 rule that any new coal power plants include cutting-edge techniques to capture the carbon dioxide from their smokestacks.
Wheeler called the Obama rules "excessive burdens" for the coal industry.
"This administration cares about action and results, not talks and wishful thinking," Wheeler said.
Asked about the harm that coal plant emissions do people and the environment, Wheeler responded, "Having cheap electricity helps human health."
Janet McCabe, an EPA air official under the Obama administration, and others challenged that. McCabe in a statement cited the conclusion of the EPA's own staff earlier this year that pending rollbacks on existing coal plants would cause thousands of early deaths from the fine soot and dangerous particles and gases.
The EPA was "turning its back on its responsibility to protect human health," McCabe said Thursday.
Environmentalists, scientists and lawmakers were scathing, saying the Trump administration was undermining what they said should be urgent efforts to slow climate change.
The EPA and 12 other federal agencies late last month warned that climate change caused by burning coal, oil and gas already was worsening natural disasters in the United States. It would cause hundreds of billions of dollars in damage each year by the end of the century, the government's National Climate Assessment said.
"This proposal is another illegal attempt by the Trump administration to prop up an industry already buckling under the powerful force of the free market," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.
"Did the EPA even read the National Climate Assessment?" Whitehouse asked.
It's unclear whether the new policy boost will overcome market forces that are making U.S. coal plants ever more unprofitable.
Competition from cleaner, cheaper natural gas and other rival forms of energy has driven down coal use in the United States to its lowest level since 1979, the Energy Information Administration said this week. This year will see the second-greatest number of U.S. closings of coal-fired power plants on record.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the EPA's action Thursday was "targeting another regulation that would have made it nearly impossible to build any new plants."
Citing that and other Obama administration moves to tamp down emissions from coal-fired power plants in the national electrical grid, McConnell called the proposal "a crucial step toward undoing the damage and putting coal back on a level playing field."
Other Trump administration initiatives rolling back climate change efforts would undo an Obama plan intended to shift the national electrical grid away from coal and toward cleaner-burning solar and wind power, and would relax pending tougher mileage standards for cars and light trucks.
Jay Duffy, a lawyer with the Clean Air Task Force environmental nonprofit, called the level-playing field argument of the administration and its supporters "laughable."
"In every rule-making, they're placing their thumbs on the scale to prop up coal, at the expense of public health and the environment," Duffy said.
Speaking alongside Wheeler at a news conference, Michelle Bloodworth of the coal industry group America's Power contended the new rollback could throw a lifeline to domestic coal-fired power producers.
"It does appear that this proposal would make it feasible for new coal plants" to be built, Bloodworth said.