President Trump failed again this week to fulfill his promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature health plan. Now he is taking aim at Mr. Obama’s central environmental legacy, the Clean Power Plan.
The administration has made clear its desire to repeal the Obama energy plan. But what would take its place remains a mystery.
The Environmental Protection Agency is expected in the coming days to reveal its strategy for reversing the Clean Power Plan, which was intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants across the country. Yet while Mr. Trump has declared the Obama-era plan dead — “Did you see what I did to that? Boom, gone,” he told a cheering crowd in Alabama recently — industry executives say they expect that utilities could still be subject to some restrictions on carbon emissions.
“I would be surprised if repeal did not lead to replacement,” said Paul Bailey, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
If the E.P.A. does open the door to a new, weaker set of rules that utilities and others favor, it will most likely touch off a legal battle with environmental groups and pose a bureaucratic challenge to an agency where critical senior positions remain vacant. It could also force the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has rejected the scientific consensus that human emissions cause climate change, to implicitly acknowledge that greenhouse gases harm human health and that the E.P.A. has an obligation to regulate them.
“There’s an internal debate over what the overall approach toward greenhouse gases should be, and it’s hard to formulate policy if you haven’t come to terms with the outcome of the debate,” said David M. Konisky, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University.
The parallels between the Clean Power Plan and the Affordable Care Act go only so far. The health care law, which was passed by Congress, offered a tangible benefit to many Americans and was firmly in place when Mr. Trump entered office. The Clean Power Plan, a regulation, not legislation, has not taken effect and is tied up in a federal appeals court.
But environmental activists and conservative opponents alike say both cases show that demanding a policy be repealed is easier than making it happen. Finding a replacement is even harder.
“From the perspective of advocacy and political strategy, I think there’s a lot of similarities. Members of Congress campaigned for six or seven years to fully repeal Obamacare, and there were no conversations about replace, or nothing of substance,” said Christine Harbin, vice president of external affairs at Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group. Of the Clean Power Plan, she said, “It may be difficult to fully repeal.”
The Clean Power Plan aimed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants 32 percent below 2005 levels and required each state to develop carbon-cutting plans. Enacting the regulation was considered vital to helping the United States reach its commitment to reduce emissions under the Paris agreement. Mr. Trump has said he intends to withdraw from that accord.
The United States Chamber of Commerce, coal companies and most Republican lawmakers strongly opposed the regulation. Mr. Trump signed an executive order in March to eliminate it, fulfilling a campaign promise to end what he denounced as a job-killing regulation.
Over the past several months, though, some of the very people who advocated killing Mr. Obama’s climate policy have told Mr. Pruitt that his agency should devise a new, albeit weaker, rule to regulate carbon emissions in its place. Leading industry groups — including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, and utility lobbies like the Edison Electric Institute — have pressed the administration for a replacement.
“We didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the last administration on how to deal with climate in the regulatory space,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which joined 28 states to challenge the Clean Power Plan in federal court. “But we’re comfortable with having a policy, even a regulation, that addresses climate change. It’s about getting the regulation right.”
In public, industry leaders say their companies already are on a greener trajectory. Behind the scenes, they also worry that simply killing the climate rule would not hold up in court, and would invite even tougher regulations under a future Democratic president. They are advocating a narrow regulation that allows utilities to reduce pollution at individual plants, like substituting fuel or improving the efficiency of furnaces.
Dan Byers, the senior director for policy at the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, said it’s important that the E.P.A.’s repeal opens the door to such a replacement. Without one, he said, the agency would be vulnerable to lawsuits for not regulating carbon dioxide.
“The uncertainty that would be associated with that is far more risky than having a rule in place which is reasonable, achievable and cost-effective,” he said.
The E.P.A. declined to answer questions about the repeal process.
“We don’t comment on rules undergoing interagency review,” Amy Graham, an agency spokeswoman, said in a statement.
If Mr. Pruitt moves to replace the Clean Power Plan, it could signal that he intends to abandon a larger fight to challenge the essential underpinning of federal climate policy.
The so-called endangerment finding, adopted after the Supreme Court found in 2007 that greenhouse gases are a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act, declares that such emissions may “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” Mr. Pruitt has been under pressure from people who reject established climate science to challenge the determination, but a chorus of more pragmatic voices inside the administration and industry have insisted that doing so would be a legal morass with an uncertain outcome.
Myron Ebell, a climate denier who led the E.P.A. transition team for the Trump administration, said he still hoped to see Mr. Pruitt challenge the endangerment finding in the future. That could happen through a series of debates on climate science that Mr. Pruitt has described as a “red team, blue team” exercise.
In the meantime, Mr. Ebell said he was confident the Clean Power Plan would crumble and said the failure of Republicans to upend the Affordable Health Care was a lesson for Democrats: Pass legislation.
“If you want to make something durable, you better get a law passed by Congress,” he said. “What one president can do by pen and by phone another president can undo by pen and by phone.”