Trump made a lot of dumb promises, but he’s following through on destroying the globe

The one area where the Trump administration has actually made considerable progress is rolling back environmental protections.

CREDIT: Diana Ofosu
CREDIT: Diana Ofosu

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. One hundred days later, Trump has already launched an almost unending series of attacks against some of America’s most fundamental environmental protections, from seeking to significantly limit the federal government’s ability to regulate water pollution to crippling the Environmental Protection Agency.

Contrary to his own claims, Trump has not done more in his first 100 days than any president in history. But when it comes to the actions he has taken, they have overwhelmingly been aimed at rolling back environmental protections and undoing environment and climate-related laws passed by President Obama. Of the 69 actions Trump has taken as president during his first 100 days, almost half — 33 of them, to be exact — have been related to the environment.

A lot of these actions have been more show than substance — many environmental regulations targeted by Trump were finalized long before he came into office, so rolling them back requires time. And many changes that involve bedrock environmental laws — the Clean Water Act, or the Clean Air Act, for instance — will likely face years of legal challenges.

But even a small rollback in the United States’ commitment to climate action could have devastating consequences down the road. Even under President Obama, the United States was not on track to reach the kind of economy-wide decarbonization necessary to stave off the worst of global warming. And under Trump, those targets, once considered a floor for climate action, are starting to look a lot more like a ceiling — at least for the next four years. One recent analysis suggests that under Trump, the U.S. could add half a billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere by 2020—the same as adding 146 new coal-fired power plants in one year.

‘The most anti-environmental cabinet in history’

Trump kicked off his presidency by amassing what Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters told ThinkProgress was the “most anti-environmental cabinet in history.”

Every member of Trump’s cabinet evaluated by LCV, which grades each member of Congress based on their environmental voting record, scored well below the national average. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (previously a Republican Congressman from Montana), earned the highest score in 2016, with 5 percent. Former Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo (R), who now leads the CIA, scored 3 percent. Former Alabama Sen. and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Georgia Rep. and current Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, and former South Carolina Rep. and Director of the Office of Budget Management Mick Mulvaney all scored 0 percent.

But perhaps the worst environmental offenders in Trump’s cabinet are people without voting records: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who previously served as Oklahoma’s attorney general, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who spent his entire career at Exxon, eventually rising to be the oil giant’s CEO.

Even among a notoriously anti-climate, anti-regulation cabinet, Trump’s choice of Pruitt for EPA head raised eyebrows. Pruitt spent most of his political career going after the EPA for what he deemed regulatory overreach, suing the agency 14 times in his six years as Oklahoma attorney general. And he has a track record of being extremely friendly with industry, going so far as to send the EPA a letter on official attorney general letterhead that was actually written by Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s largest fossil fuel companies.

In his first tweet as EPA administrator, Pruitt made it clear that his history of industry favoritism was not going to stop after he left Oklahoma.

Since becoming EPA administrator, Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on climate change on national television, called for the United States to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, and defended the administration’s proposed cuts to his agency.

Executive actions to roll back protections and boost fossil fuels

Throughout his first 100 days, most of Trump’s environmental actions have come either through executive orders or executive memorandums. That’s because several of the rules he’s most interested in repealing — the Clean Power Plan, for instance, or the Clean Water Rule — were finalized long before Trump came into office. Presidents can’t unilaterally undo final rules; they have to go through the same rule-making process as with the original rule, and then defend any changes in court to prove they weren’t politically motivated. So repealing final rules takes time — certainly much longer than 100 days.

Still, Trump has spent the better part of his first 100 days signing a slew of orders directing various agencies to begin that long, drawn out process. In February, he directed the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to begin the process of repealing and rewriting the Clean Water Rule, which was the Obama administration’s attempt to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act. In late March, he signed another executive order directing the EPA to start repealing and rewriting the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s signature domestic climate regulation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

He also signed an executive memorandum aimed at fast-tracking two controversial pipelines that were halted by the previous administration: the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline. In the memorandum, Trump ordered that the Army Corps of Engineers cancel a previously ordered environmental study of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and that regulators within the State Department issue an approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 60 days. At least one of those actions has already resulted in a lawsuit: environmental groups argue that since the Keystone XL approval relied on an environmental study from 2014, it violates the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal projects to undergo an environmental impact study.

Trump is also reportedly looking to boost domestic fossil fuel extraction by issuing more executive orders this week. On Wednesday, he signed an order directing the U.S. Department of Interior to review two decades’ worth of national monument designations. And on Friday, he is expected to sign an order asking the Department of the Interior to review potential offshore leases for oil and gas companies — something Obama sought to limit during his final weeks in office.

Putting environmental regulations on hold

But it’s not just through executive order that Trump has sought to weaken environmental protections and slow progress on climate change — by delaying court cases regarding environmental regulations, the Trump administration can effectively hold these regulations in limbo while taking years to rewrite and enact a new rule.

Both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule were already being challenged in court by a coalition of industry groups and conservative attorneys general before Trump took office. In the Clean Power Plan case, the rule had actually been stayed by the Supreme Court, pending a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. That case had been argued by both sides, and a decision was expected any day — until the Department of Justice asked the court to delay issuing a ruling until the regulation could be rewritten by the EPA.

Since both the Clean Power Plan and WOTUS rule are currently under a stay until a court issues a ruling, both of these regulations are now effectively frozen in limbo — which means regulatory uncertainty for both industry and environmental groups.

The Trump administration has also asked courts to delay arguments on the Obama administration’s 2015 ozone rule and 2016 methane regulations for new oil and gas operations. A federal appeals court has already granted the administration a delay in a case concerning wastewater discharge from coal plants; the administration says that it plans to use that delay to consider rescinding the regulations, which regulate the amount of toxic pollutants, like heavy metals, allowed in wastewater discharged from power plants.

More pollution at industry’s request

One of Trump’s first actions as president was to sign a law repealing the Stream Protection Rule, an Obama-era rule aimed at preventing mining companies from polluting nearby streams. The coal industry was not a fan of this rule; the CEO of Murray Energy, for instance, went so far as to say that it would “put our nation’s coal miners out of work.” The Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation did not agree with Murray’s assessment, finding that the rule would reduce coal employment by 124 jobs between now and 2040. But because the rule was finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration, Congress was able to repeal it using the Congressional Review Act, which only requires a simple majority in both chambers.

The rollback didn’t end with removing protections for waterways. In his first 100 days, Trump, along with Congress, has used the Congressional Review Act to kill four other environmental regulations: a rule that prevented oil and gas companies from venting and flaring of methane on public lands, a rule that required oil and gas companies to disclose foreign payments, a rule that attempted to give the American public greater say in how public lands are used, and a rule aimed at protecting predators from hunters in national wildlife refuges.

The Congressional Review Act wasn’t the only avenue Trump pursued to reverse Obama-era policies at the behest of industry interests. In mid-March, the president announced that his administration would be reviewing the Obama administration’s fuel efficiency standards, after a request from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group that represents both domestic and international automakers.

Over at the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt got to work repealing various regulations aimed at limiting pollution from industry. In one of his first acts as administrator, Pruitt withdrew an EPA request asking for methane emission data from the oil and gas industry, which the Obama administration had called a “critical step” in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing fossil fuel operations. In explaining his decision to withdraw the request, Pruitt said that the actions would “reduce burdens on business.”

In late March, Pruitt also rejected banning a controversial pesticide despite EPA scientists warning it could have potentially serious impacts on human health. Following that decision, Dow Chemical — one of the nation’s largest producers of chemical pesticides — sent a letter to three of Trump’s cabinet secretaries, asking them to reconsider government studies that found a class of pesticides known as organophosphates to be harmful to critically threatened or endangered species. Dow Chemical’s CEO heads the White House manufacturing working group, and the company contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.

Defunding climate action — at home and abroad

In March, the Trump administration released its so-called “skinny budget,” and it included nothing but bad news for climate and the environment. The EPA, under Trump’s plan, would see its budget slashed 31 percent, more than any other federal agency. It would cut funding for Superfund Programs — meant to clean up sites plagued with dangerous, legacy pollutants — and cut grants aimed at helping states prevent childhood lead exposure. It would cut the agency’s Office of Criminal Enforcement by almost 60 percent, hampering the agency’s ability to enforce environmental regulations and investigate environmental crimes. Rumors have been circulating regarding a leaked plan to close entire regional EPA offices — the EPA Region 5 office, located in Chicago, has been of particular interest.

The EPA isn’t the only federal agency that would see sharp cuts in its environmental and climate programs under Trump’s proposed budget. The Department of Energy would see programs like Energy Star or Weatherization Assistance cut. The agency’s loan program, which helped launch technology like Tesla, would be zeroed out. And the agency’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would see its focus “limited” to “early-stage applied energy research and development activities.”

In a press conference with reporters after the skinny budget was introduced, OMB director Mick Mulvaney did not sugarcoat the administration’s approach to funding climate research.

“Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the President was fairly straightforward — we’re not spending money on that anymore,” Mulvaney said. “We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.”

Trump’s budget would also cut funding for the Global Climate Change Initiative, and stop payments to both the Green Climate Fund and the Climate Investment Funds. Such a step would essentially remove the United States from the conversation about global climate finance. Global climate finance experts have warned Trump that by turning his back on climate investments, he’s essentially ceding a slew of economic benefits — from investments in green technology and infrastructure to a better seat at the negotiating table.

One climate policy that Trump has not tackled in his first 100 days — contrary to promises made on the campaign trail — is the Paris climate agreement. As a candidate, Trump vowed to withdraw the United States from the agreement, which he incorrectly argued allowed “foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use.” In reality, the Paris agreement is centered on individual pledges from countries, meaning each country is in control of how it chooses to reduce emissions to meet the parameters set by the agreement (to keep the world below 2°C). Trump advisers are expected to meet on Thursday to discuss whether or not the United States will remain in the agreement, though the administration has only said that it will make a decision before the G7 Summit in late May.

Even if Trump chooses to remain in the agreement, however, it’s clear that without strong domestic policies aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity, transportation, industrial, and agricultural sector, the United States will not meet its commitments.

The public is not on board

Through 100 days, Trump’s approval rating has fluctuated from poor to very poor —peaking at about 48 percent in late January and cratering at around 39 percent in early April. But when it comes to his actions on the environment, Trump might be even more unpopular than his general approval rating would suggest: according to Politico’s 100 days report card, climate change is considered Trump’s worst area, with only 39 percent of respondents giving him a passing grade (“C” or higher). Forty-four percent of respondents gave him a “D” or an “F.”

Trump’s attacks on environmental protections come at a time when concern about climate change is at a three-decade high in the United States. According to Gallup, 45 percent of Americans worry “a great deal” about global warming, an 8 percent jump from 2016. And environmental regulations, despite the Trump administration’s rhetoric, are largely popular: 59 percent of American’s say the environment should take priority over energy production, and 79 percent think there should be more emphasis on solar power (only 28 percent feel the same way about coal). Even the regulations Trump deems the most burdensome, like the Clean Power Plan, enjoy wide support from voters. According to a Yale/George Mason poll from November, 7 out of 10 voters support setting strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants in order to protect public health and reduce global warming.

Even self-identified Trump supporters are less extreme than the president when it comes to things like renewable energy: 75 percent of Trump voters support taking action to accelerate the development and deployment of clean energy in the United States.

The long-term impact of Trump’s environmental assault — and his gifts to polluting industry — will likely take years to play out, with a slew of court challenges already throwing sand in the administration’s gears. States and cities have also shown their willingness to ramp up their commitment to climate and sustainability, in response to backsliding at the federal level. And energy experts expect market forces will continue to drive down the cost of low-emission energy sources like wind and solar, even without robust financing at the federal level (though innovation will certainly occur at a slower rate than it would with federal help).

But what’s increasingly clear from Trump’s first 100 days is that his actions don’t reflect the country’s fairly broad consensus on the environment, and instead prioritizes the desires of industry over the perspective of the American public.