Federal court strikes down major Trump climate rollback

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FILE - The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo., Friday, July 27, 2018. The Trump administration has weakened an Obama-era rule aimed at stopping coal plant pollution that has contaminated streams, lakes and underground aquifers. The changes finalized Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, will allow utilities to use cheaper wastewater cleanup technologies and take longer to comply with pollution reduction guidelines adopted in 2015. Its the latest in a string of regulatory rollbacks for the coal power industry under Trump. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

WASHINGTON – In a last-minute slap at President Donald Trump, a federal appeals court struck down one of his administration’s most momentous climate rollbacks on Tuesday, saying officials acted illegally in issuing a new rule that eased federal regulation of air pollution from power plants.

The Trump administration rule was based on a “mistaken reading of the Clean Air Act,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency "fundamentally has misconceived the law.” The decision is likely to give the incoming Biden administration a freer hand to regulate emissions from power plants, one of the major sources of climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.

EPA spokeswoman Molly Block called the agency’s handling of the rule change “well-supported." The court decision "risks injecting more uncertainty at a time when the nation needs regulatory stability,” she said.

Environmental groups celebrated the ruling by a three-member panel of the Court of Appeals.

“Today’s decision is the perfect Inauguration Day present for America,'' said Ben Levitan, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the groups that had challenged the Trump rule in court.

The ruling “confirms that the Trump administration’s dubious attempt to get rid of common-sense limits on climate pollution from power plants was illegal,'' Levitan said. "Now we can turn to the critically important work of protecting Americans from climate change and creating new clean energy jobs.”

A coalition of environmental groups, some state governments and others had challenged the Trump administration’s so-called Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, rule for the power sector. The rule, which was made final in 2019, replaced the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration's signature program to address climate change.

The court decision came on the last full day in office for the Trump administration. Under Trump, the EPA rolled back dozens of public health and environmental protections as the administration sought to cut regulation overall, calling much of it unnecessary and a burden to business.