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US Senate defeats effort to repeal new EPA power plant carbon rule

The GOP-majority U.S. Senate defeated a resolution to overturn the Trump administration's Affordable Clean Energy rule, which replaced the more stringent Obama-era Clean Power Plan for reducing power sector carbon dioxide emissions.

Senate Joint Resolution 53 sought to rescind the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ACE rule finalized in June. The regulation directed states under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act to form their own requirements for improving the efficiency of existing coal-fired power plants.

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The U.S. Capitol Dome is seen behind the Peace Monument statue in Washington, D.C.
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The ACE rule was far less sweeping than the Clean Power Plan, a 2015 directive that established state-specific carbon emission rate limits for existing fossil fuel-fired facilities and provided a broad range of compliance options, including generators switching from coal to lower-emitting energy sources such as renewables and natural gas.

According to EPA estimates, the ACE rule is expected to cut about 11 million short tons of carbon emissions from existing coal-fired plants by 2030, well below the 870-million-ton-by-2030 reduction the agency projected in 2015 under the Clean Power Plan.

Democrats, environmental groups and many states have blasted the ACE rule for not being aggressive enough, prompting U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., to introduce S.J. Res. 53 under the Congressional Review Act. The act gives Congress 60 legislative days after a federal regulation has been finalized to vote on repealing the rule. Support is needed from only a simple majority of the Senate to pass such a resolution and only 30 members' signatures are needed to schedule the vote.

But the Senate on Oct. 17 voted 53-41 against S.J. Res. 53, with key Republicans saying the measure would have revived former President Barack Obama's "war on coal." Opponents of the Clean Power Plan said the EPA overstepped its legal authority with the rule by promoting compliance efforts "outside the fenceline" of regulated emissions sources.

"This relic of the Obama administration would have further buried the producers of affordable American energy under a mountain of stifling red tape," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said ahead of the Oct. 17 vote. "It would have created overlapping local, state, and federal standards, unrealistic compliance deadlines, and set up Washington bureaucracy that was effectively rooting for American energy to fail."

The White House threatened to veto S.J. Res. 53, saying the resolution would "disrupt the rule of law and interfere with states' efforts to continue to reduce emissions" and that the ACE rule created "achievable and realistic standards" for lowering greenhouse gas output.

But Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called the ACE regulation a "dangerous rule that weakens critical standards to reduce emissions from power plants that significantly contribute to the climate crisis."

Despite the defeat of congressional efforts to overturn the ACE rule, nearly two dozen states and several environmental groups are moving ahead with legal challenges to the regulation. On Aug. 13, New York led a group of 22 states and seven municipalities in filing a petition for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. A day later, a broad coalition of green groups submitted their own petition to the D.C. Circuit, arguing the ACE rule did not set mandatory carbon limits and would threaten public health.