President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt confirms that the Trump administration and its appointees will not continue to support attempts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address climate change. Pruitt, who has referred to the debate regarding global warming as “far from settled,” has filed several lawsuits against EPA challenging regulations that limit such emissions from the coal, oil, and natural gas industries, including an EPA rule implementing the Clean Power Plan by requiring states to adopt standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing electric utility generating units from 2005 levels by 32% by 2030 and an update to the New Source Performance Standards limiting emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds from new, modified, and reconstructed oil and natural gas industry sources. It is widely assumed that Pruitt will continue to challenge climate change policies from within the EPA as well.
But would Pruitt’s likely attempts to overturn the Clean Power Plan rules, if successful, significantly increase the United States’ reliance on coal-fired generation or discourage development of natural gas-generated plants and renewables? The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2016 projects a decline in the share of generation from coal-fired plants and a rise in the share of generation from natural gas plants and renewable projects regardless of whether the Clean Power Plan is upheld. However, the shift in generation will be more drastic if the rules remain in place, given the mandate to lower carbon emissions from existing electric utilities through means including reliance on less carbon-intensive generation sources.
2016 EIA Annual Energy Outlook Projections with the Clean Power Plan
Even without the Clean Power Plan in place, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects very little increase in coal-fired capacity by 2040, with coal’s total share of electricity generation falling from 33% in 2015 to 26% in 2040. Limiting climate change regulations could certainly remove barriers to development of additional coal-fired generation, but it can only do so much.
2016 EIA Annual Outlook Projections without the Clean Power Plan
In contrast, the trend toward increased reliance on natural gas and renewables is projected to continue notwithstanding regulations governing climate change. Lower natural gas prices contribute to the country’s declining reliance on coal-fired generation, and conversion of coal-fired plants to natural gas-fired plants is already underway. Moreover, renewable project development is likely to continue given the lower costs of installing generating technologies and the availability of tax credits encouraging renewable project development.
Scott Pruitt’s appointment may signal a coming reversal in the EPA’s policies governing climate change, but it is unlikely to be either a panacea for coal-fired generation or a death knell for natural gas or renewables.