A Rollback Of The Clean Power Plan
The Trump administration replaced the Clean Power Plan, which was an Obama-era policy that aimed to reduce greenhouse gases by 32% of 2005 levels by 2030. This week the Environmental Protection Agency released a replacement plan called the Affordable Clean Energy that has narrower regulations. Reporter Umair Irfan from Vox talks about NASA’s upcoming mission to send a helicopter drone to Saturn’s moon, Titan.
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Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about signs that science may be under fire at the US Department of Agriculture, including a look at why the USDA is keeping quiet about its own climate change research.
But first, in the Democratic presidential debates, there were quite a few mentions about climate change. Each candidate seemed to have at least some thoughts about addressing climate change. But last week, the Trump administration rolled back the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era proposal to address climate change by setting limits on emissions on power plants. Now the Trump EPA has replaced that with a new plan called the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. Here to fill us in on that story is Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox. Welcome back to Science Friday.
UMAIR IRFAN: Hi, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: So what are the key differences between these two plans?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, the Obama-era plan focused on a huge suite of techniques that you could use to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that included installing things like CO2 scrubbers or even trading carbon credits with other states or in the region to help lower greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump plan focuses on one technique, and that’s what they call heat rate improvement, which is basically a fancy way of saying they want to improve the fuel efficiency of coal fired power plants.
IRA FLATOW: Not do away with them, but improve their fuel efficiency.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. And that creates sort of a paradoxical situation because you know if you have a car that gets better gas mileage, you might drive it more? Well, some researchers looked at the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, and they found that it would actually lead to more greenhouse gas emissions. Because as you improve the efficiency of these power plants, you make it more cost effective to run them. In some instances, it would increase the output of some plants by 28%, if not more.
IRA FLATOW: Seems to me a little bit of circular logic here because that plan was put out by the EPA, which this current administration says the agency doesn’t have the authority to do.
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, the EPA is required by law, by a Supreme Court decision, actually, to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The question is what it can mandate or what it can tell the states to do. Now the Trump administration has argued that the whole suite of techniques that the Obama administration imposed on states, that was beyond what the EPA is legally allowed to do. When the Obama plan came out, 27 states sued to block the rule, and the Supreme Court stepped in to issue a temporary stay to allow the lawsuits to go ahead. The Trump administration is now saying their new rule actually comports with the law better.
IRA FLATOW: Hm. Your next story looks at cap and trade bills being passed on the state level. Now, New York is the latest state to pass an ambitious bill. Tell us about that.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. It’s actually the first state to do so by law. It passed through the legislature and was signed by the governor. This is probably one of the most ambitious statewide carbon and climate change targets in the country. It aims to have the whole state, the entire economy, to be carbon neutral by 2050. So that’s not just power plants. It’s cars, it’s residential heating, it’s factories, and so on.
But the key factor is that this is net zero, not absolute zero. So it means you can still emit CO2, but you have to compensate for it in another way. And the mechanism to do that is, of course, cap and trade. New York is part of a regional greenhouse gas initiative, which lets it trade carbon credits with other states. So if they are producing extra credits or if they need extra credits, they can buy some from other states and work their way down in a more flexible way.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s move over to the other coast. Oregon is another story. This is a really interesting one where lawmakers went missing. They went out of the state to avoid a vote. State police had to get involved.
UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. Similar to New York, the state legislature was weighing another cap and trade bill. The Democrats in the last election won super majorities in both the Oregon House and the Oregon Senate. So they campaigned on this issue. And they were about to pass it in the Senate, but Republicans fled the state last week to deny a quorum, so they couldn’t hold a vote.
The governor, Kate Brown, ordered state police to go look for the wayward Republicans. And they were trying to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies and other states to bring them back. But just this morning, and in fact, on my way to the studio, one of the Republicans returned to the Oregon Capitol this morning and says that an announcement is coming.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, you mean they’ll be coming back, assuming that’s what that means.
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, yeah. So it could be that. The legislative session’s deadline was June 30, and so the assumption was they were trying to run out the clock. But maybe they struck a backroom deal, and maybe they have a compromise here that could bring Republicans back to the table and may get this bill passed. We don’t know yet.
IRA FLATOW: As they say in our business, stay tuned. And just give us a little brief idea of what the reductions this bill would call for.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Well, like the New York bill, it would eventually zero out the entire greenhouse gas footprint of the state of Oregon. And it would do so with a cap and trade scheme. Oregon would be in the Western Climate Initiative, which is a separate carbon market on the west coast with California and a couple parts of Canada. But it would work in a lot of the same ways as the New York bill. It’s just that Oregon is a much smaller state, a much smaller economy, and has a large rural population. And so that’s part of where you’re getting the pushback.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s move on to something quite interesting and quite surprising, I think, to a lot of people. And that was that NASA announces a new mission this week called Dragonfly that’s going to go to Saturn’s moon– the giant moon, Titan. Why Titan?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, Titan’s got rivers. It’s got lakes, it’s got mountains, and most importantly for NASA, it might have life. And so this is a mission that’s going to go there to kind of look for some of the precursors for life, and maybe a living organism if there is one.
But what’s special about this is that this mission is going to send, essentially, a nuclear-powered eight-rotor helicopter to explore the planet. This is similar to the camera drones. You may have seen those quadcopters and whatnot. Titan’s atmosphere is four times as dense as Earth’s, and it has less gravity. So an aerial vehicle would actually do quite well in that atmosphere. And so they want to send this device there to explore the planet and detect signs of life.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. I guess Dragonfly is a good name because the craft is basically, as you say, a drone and go flit around from place to place.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. And the mission is scheduled to launch in 2026 and should arrive there around 2034.
IRA FLATOW: And it’s a good place to search for stuff because it has a very diverse landscape.
UMAIR IRFAN: It has a diverse landscape. Previous missions have detected organic compounds– compounds like methane. And so those could be some of the raw ingredients you need to assemble some of the materials for life. And in a lot of different ways, it’s kind of like Earth. And then in a lot of important ways, it’s different. It looks kind of like Earth before life evolved, some scientists say. And so that’s why it’s an interesting snapshot.
IRA FLATOW: Just a closing note today that Paris hit 112 degrees Fahrenheit in southern France– 115. Wow. It’s hot in Europe.
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. There’s a huge heat wave going on. And in Spain, the heat has helped trigger some wildfires. And in Europe, I mean, it’s especially concerning because the building stock there is a lot older, and much of Europe doesn’t use air conditioning. And so public health officials have opened public cooling centers to help people find some relief.
IRA FLATOW: All right, Umair. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.
UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Stay cool. Umair Irfan, a staff writer for Vox based in Washington.
Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.