New Trump administration rules aimed at protecting the coal industry reverse Obama-era regulations on greenhouse gases by letting states set their own rules.

That means Kansas regulators could clear the way for more coal, but economic trends have already driven a shift to natural gas and wind power.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released the new Affordable Clean Energy rule — distinctive from the Clean Power Plan of the Obama years in how it defers any rule-making to the states.

“Today’s proposal provides the states and regulated community the certainty they need to continue environmental progress while fulfilling President Trump’s goal of energy dominance,” acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a news release.

At this point it’s unclear who in Kansas would be responsible for developing the plan.

Trump has been clear that he wants to save the coal industry, and replacing the Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy rule is seen as a key effort to make it easier to burn the fossil fuel.

But the new rules likely won’t change the trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions in Kansas. The decrease in the price of natural gas and the expansion of renewable wind energy has shifted how much the state relies on coal power. As electric utilities move away from coal, the amount of carbon they’re emitting is decreasing regardless of government regulations.

From 2000 to 2014, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants in Kansas decreased from 1,824 pounds per megawatt hour generated to 1,407 pounds. Total carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants peaked in 2007 at nearly 37 million metric tons. It dropped to 25.6 million metric tons by 2015.

Even with the new rules from Trump’s EPA that would reduce regulations on coal plants compared to those pushed by the Obama administration, the trend toward natural gas is likely to continue.

Westar Energy has announced that it will close its coal generator at the Tecumseh Energy Center in Topeka in October. The plant is one of the utility company's oldest. Westar executives said it was inefficient and becoming too costly to operate.

That’s in addition to two coal generators it closed in 2015.

Westar officials say, for now, they have enough capacity in their system and have no plans for adding additional generation, coal or otherwise, in the near future.

There are currently six coal-fired power plants operating in Kansas, the newest of which began operating in 1983. One of them is the Sunflower Electric Power Corp. coal-fired plant near Holcomb.

 

Brian Grimmett, based at KMUW in Wichita, is a reporter focusing on the environment and energy for the Kansas News Service.