By Scott Dance

President Donald Trump's administration on Tuesday proposed a new set of rules that would give states greater control over limits on pollution from coal-fired power plants -- and likely allow many of those plants to operate longer than they would have under a plan former President Barack Obama had set in motion.

The Trump plan, which Environmental Protection Agency officials said would encourage coal plants to increase efficiency, comes as Maryland officials are pressing the federal government to require coal plants in upwind states to do more to scrub their emissions of harmful pollutants.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state would oppose any changes to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that make it less stringent and reduce federal enforcement of power plant pollution.

Maryland is requiring three coal power plants to limit the amount of mercury, arsenic and other toxic metals they release into the Potomac and Patuxent rivers starting in 2020, amid uncertainty over whether the federal government will address the discharges.

Grumbles said the state would explore legal action and work on state- and region-level efforts to reduce air pollution and emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. State environmental regulators estimate that as much as 70 percent of smog that often makes the air unhealthy in Maryland blows in from other states.

"It underscores now more than ever the need for state and regional leadership," Grumbles said. "The more states that are putting a price on carbon, the better."

The administration's announcement fulfills a pledge Trump made almost a year ago to repeal Obama's Clean Power Plan, when former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declared "the war on coal is over."

Environmentalists and nearly 50 state Democrats have urged the Hogan administration to immediately impose tougher water pollution standards on coal-fired power plants, rather than wait for rules delayed by the Trump administration.

The Obama plan aimed to cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by a third below 2005 levels by 2030, but the Trump administration has called that plan a federal overreach. It would have required states to meet specific emissions reductions targets and required them to create plans to meet those goals.

Instead, the EPA is proposing to allow states to decide what needs to be done at individual coal plants to clean the air, subject to federal review, using emissions-cleaning technologies from a list the EPA is creating.

"The era of top-down, one-size-fits-all federal mandates is over," acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said. "We will give states and the private sector the regulatory certainty they need to invest in new technologies."

Maryland is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, demanding it address air pollution that blows in from upwind states.

The action against President Donald Trump's administration would press the EPA to apply stricter pollution controls to dozens of power plants in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania...

Environmental groups were quick to criticize the plan for lacking any quantifiable emissions limits for coal plants and other power generators.

"This proposal would eliminate almost all the life-saving climate and health benefits that the Clean Power Plan provides," said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. "The Trump-Wheeler plan will mean millions of tons more air pollution endangering our kids' health, lives and future."

EPA officials said they expect "very little difference" in emissions reductions between the Trump plan and the Obama plan because of the growing use of natural gas and renewable fuels since the Clean Power Plan was proposed in 2014. And they questioned projections that the emissions reductions will be far lower under the Trump plan because they said it remains to be seen what states will do to cut power plant emissions.

The sky above Hart-Miller Island became a busy laboratory for several weeks this summer as researchers launched balloons, drones and planes to better understand the complex swirl of air pollution over the Chesapeake Bay.

Legal challenges of the Trump rules are likely. The administration of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has already pressed the EPA not to abandon the Obama plan, and said its repeal would set back state goals to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The state has already taken legal action to push EPA to limit pollution from coal plants in upwind states.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, called the new rules "a sham" on Twitter.

"Where have all the glaciers gone?" he wrote. "Climate change is real and needs to be addressed."

EPA officials said they believe the new rules are on solid legal footing. They called the Obama rules "a misapplication" of the federal Clean Air Act.

"It was essentially a federal mandate that left states very little latitude," said Bill Wehrum, EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation. "We're bringing this regulation back into focus and requiring the states look at emissions controls that can be applied at the source."

(c)2018 The Baltimore Sun