1. Opinion

Editorial: Utilities should embrace clean energy even if Trump doesn't

The Trump administration's proposal to curtail regulations on coal-fired power plants is bad for public health, the wrong signal to the economy and a further danger to coastal states such as Florida, where rising sea levels increasingly threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Scoring political points with a shrinking workforce of miners and undermining one of former President Barack Obama's key achievements apparently trumps the benefit of cleaner air and water, of cheaper and more sustainable energy and of America's national security interest in curtailing global warming. Tampa Bay area utilities should continue to move away from coal for the long-term benefits to public health and the region's economy.

The proposal would replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan with new rules that would relax emissions standards and give the states new authority to allow older, dirtier power plants to keep on operating. Obama's Clean Power Plan, proposed in 2015, set a goal of driving down carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. It gave the states flexibility in reaching the emissions targets even as it acted as a tool for encouraging utilities to switch from coal to cleaner energy sources. Obama saw that strategy as a signature attempt to improve public health and assert American leadership in the run-up to the Paris global climate accords. It also gave industry the regulatory certainty it needed to close down dirtier coal plants and spur new investments in natural gas and other energy production facilities.

Trump's plan would replace the hard targets with a new emphasis on making older coal plants more efficient, providing an incentive to keep some of the dirtiest plants operating longer. The administration's own analysis said the new rules could lead to as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 from an increase in the fine particulate matter that is linked to heart and lung disease, and up to 15,000 new cases of breathing problems and tens of thousands of missed school days. That threat would be especially acute in Florida, the nation's third-largest state. By contrast, the Obama plan was expected to help prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths a year by 2030.

Court battles kept the Clean Power Plan from going into effect. But it helped steer the industry toward a cleaner future. Carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are dropping thanks to a switch from coal to natural gas and technological efficiencies. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates energy related carbon emissions will be about 13 percent lower in 2019 than in 2005. And from 2000 to 2015, the per-capita reduction in Florida has beat the national average.

Tampa Bay utilities have moved away from coal in recent years in favor of natural gas and renewables, a shift that Trump's policy reversal is not expected to change. Tampa Electric Co. said it intends to continue with plans to convert a coal-fired unit at its Apollo Beach plant to natural gas by 2023, when coal would make up just 12 percent of its energy mix. Duke Energy Florida also said it expects to continue reducing its carbon emissions. Consumers need to keep the utilities on the right path. And Congress needs to push the administration in a direction that recognizes coal's dwindling future and the harm it has done the environment.