Trump just gutted U.S. policies to fight climate change

It won’t do what the administration is saying it will, and what they aren’t saying about it is terrifying.

A coal-fired power plant in Juliette, GA. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Amis, File
A coal-fired power plant in Juliette, GA. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Amis, File

Three months into President Donald Trump’s first term, one thing has become increasingly clear: Trump has no interest in maintaining the environmental protections ushered in by President Barack Obama.

Trump looks to solidify that intention on Tuesday, releasing a sweeping executive order that touches nearly every environmental action taken by the previous administration.

“There are a number of policies from the Obama administration that the president believes should be reviewed,” a senior White House official said during a press call on Monday night. “Some of them should be taken off the books immediately, to the extent that we can.”

“There are a number of policies from the Obama administration that the president believes should be reviewed.”

In the order, the president asks for more than just a repeal and rework of the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature domestic climate policy and Trump’s preferred scapegoat for the declining coal industry. The order also seeks to repeal rules regarding fracking on public lands, and coal leases on federal lands. It orders agencies to reconsider the Social Cost of Carbon and rescinds an Obama-era order requiring agencies to consider the impact of climate change in their environmental permitting process. And it undoes key executive actions meant to make the federal government — and communities — more prepared to handle the consequences of climate change.

Reports have been circulating for months regarding this order and its contents, but the timeline for its release slipped more than once. As the weeks stretched on, the executive order became about more than just the Clean Power Plan — the Trump administration, acting not unlike a five-year-old left unsupervised in the aisles of a candy store, kept piling on rules and regulations it wanted to include.

The result is a behemoth order that touches on nearly a dozen different Obama-era rules. And while it will certainly have a measurable impact on domestic energy policy for years to come, the order — like Trump’s proposed “skinny budget” released in mid-March — is also a values statement, one that signals the United States federal government is no longer interested in fighting climate change, or helping communities adapt to its devastating consequences, at home and abroad.

This order will make communities more vulnerable to climate change.

While the order is being touted as a job creator by the Trump White House, it’s important to note that it sends a clear signal to agencies across the federal government: climate change is no longer something that should be considered a priority when making decisions.

That’s evident in the order’s directive to repeal a number of Obama-era executive actions aimed at mitigating impacts on natural resources from development, requiring federal agencies to take steps to prepare for climate impacts, and requiring agencies to take climate change into account when crafting national security plans and policies.

The Trump executive order also unilaterally rescinds President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which served as the blueprint for climate action under the previous administration.

“We believe a number of those orders have run their course, we also believe those orders simply don’t reflect the president’s priorities when it comes to dealing with climate change,” a senior White House official said on Monday.

Trump does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change, and has claimed it is a hoax created by the Chinese to make the U.S. less competitive in manufacturing. His EPA head, Scott Pruitt, also does not accept the scientific consensus on climate change, falsely claiming carbon dioxide emissions are not a primary contributor to global warming.

In fact, 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is both real and a result of human activity.

“We believe a number of those orders have run their course, we also believe those orders simply don’t reflect the president’s priorities when it comes to dealing with climate change.”

Government agencies may choose to continue to consider climate change in their planning processes, even after Obama’s executive orders are repealed. The Department of Defense, for instance, has long sounded alarm bells about the danger climate change poses to both national security and U.S. operations abroad. It’s unlikely they will stop taking climate impacts into account, especially with Secretary of Defense James Mattis citing climate change as a threat to American interests at home and abroad in unpublished testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee after his confirmation hearing. Other agencies, however, may stop factoring climate change into their policy-making process since they are no longer required to do so.

This order won’t bring back the jobs Trump promises it will.

On the campaign trail, Trump touted an energy platform that was heavy on promises and light on policy. He promised to bring back coal jobs and revitalize the shrinking industry, whose decline he blamed on Obama-era regulations like the Clean Power Plan. He also promised to unleash American natural gas extraction, pledging to open up drilling on federal lands and in previously off-limits coastal areas.

“We’re going to bring back jobs,” Vice President Mike Pence said before a crowd in West Virginia on Saturday. “We’re going to get Washington out of the way of energy producers and coal miners — because energy means growth for America, and President Trump digs coal.”

Energy experts and economists, however, have been quick to point out that it might be near impossible for Trump to deliver on his promises, especially in coal country. For starters, Trump’s promises to coal country and the natural gas industry are at odds with one another: If he succeeds in encouraging natural gas production, the low cost and wide availability of natural gas will likely only deepen coal’s decline. And reworking the Clean Power Plan, according to the Energy Information Administration, will do little to help hasten coal’s rebound — coal was suffering long before the Clean Power Plan, due to both automation in the coal industry and the cheap, plentiful natural gas. (The Clean Power Plan, incidentally, hasn’t even been implemented because it’s under a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.)

“I think it’s mostly symbolic gesture by the administration…It’s the Trump administration saying we don’t believe that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed.”

“I think it’s mostly symbolic gesture by the administration,” John Coequyt, Sierra Club’s senior campaign director for federal and international climate campaigns, told ThinkProgress. “It’s the Trump administration saying we don’t believe that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed, and trying, I believe, to align itself with the communities that have been struggling with this transition without actually addressing the problems of those communities.”

Lifting the moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands is also unlikely to do much to bring back coal jobs in the near-term. Forty percent of U.S. coal comes from federal lands, mainly from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, but the federal government hasn’t sold a new coal lease on federal lands since 2012. Competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy has thrown coal’s long-term economic viability into question, and many coal companies already have federal leases that span five, 10, or 20 years into the future — meaning even without the moratorium, demand for those leases is unlikely to be high enough to radically alter slumping demand for coal. Peabody, the country’s largest coal company, for instance, told Bloomberg that it would not need another federal coal lease for “approximately a decade at this point.”

Despite EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s assertion on ABC’s This Week that the executive order would “absolutely” bring back coal jobs, it’s unlikely coal communities will see immediate relief from this new executive order. The order does not address the issue of automation in the coal industry, which has been responsible for rapid reductions in mining employment. It also does nothing to combat the competition coal faces from cheap natural gas — if fact, Trump has regularly expressed support for expanded fracking in the United States, a policy that would further deepen coal’s decline.

The order also does nothing to provide health care to tens of thousands of retired coal miners, who are facing the expiration of health care benefits in April. It also does nothing to soften cuts to regional programs proposed in the Trump “skinny budget,” including zeroing out the Appalachian Regional Commission, a program that helps fund everything from infrastructure updates to job training programs in communities hit hardest by coal’s downturn.

Moreover, repealing the Clean Power Plan — coupled with cuts to renewable energy and energy efficiency funding proposed in Trump’s budget — could hurt a sector of the economy that has been experiencing rapid growth in recent years: renewable energy. According to a report from the Environmental Defense Fund, wind and solar have been adding jobs at a rate 12 times as fast as the rest of the economy, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that the fastest growing job over the next decade will likely be a wind turbine technician.

This order won’t increase America’s energy independence.

Pruitt, Trump, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer have all touted Tuesday’s order as a move to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign energy sources and increase energy independence — but it’s far from a sure thing that the order will actually accomplish this.

Eliminating the Clean Power Plan (a process this order merely sets into motion) likely wouldn’t have a significant impact on the country’s energy imports. If anything, it would shift America’s energy mix to slightly favor coal, away from lower-carbon alternatives like renewable energy.

Lifting the coal moratorium is also likely to have a negligible impact — at least in the near term — on U.S. energy independence, as many coal companies currently have sufficient reserves to meet demand. Similarly, lifting rules for fracking on public lands is unlikely to substantially boost production in those areas; the Obama-era rules did not prevent fracking, but simply required stronger environmental standards and reporting from companies that drill on public lands. According to analysis from the Department of the Interior, those rules would have increased the cost of production per well by less than a quarter of one percent —probably not a large enough margin to seriously impact production.

Doing away with the Obama-era rule meant to limit methane from oil and gas operations will likely result in more wasted methane from those operations — increasing waste in the U.S. energy sector, not spurring production. An economic analysis from the Environmental Defense Fund found that scrapping the rule could result in loses of natural gas worth up to $330 million each year.

This order means years of legal battles are ahead.

Many of the marquee regulations the Trump administration is seeking to repeal with this order — the Clean Power Plan, limits on methane from existing oil and gas operations, standards for fracking on public lands — cannot be unilaterally repealed with the stroke of the pen. Other parts of this order — the portion targeting the Social Cost of Carbon, for instance, or the elimination of the Council on Environment Quality’s National Environmental Policy Act guidance on climate change — can be accomplished with the stroke of the pen, but definitely open the administration up to legal challenges in the future.

The bottom line is that Trump, like all presidents, has to operate within the bounds of what he can and can’t do by executive order. With this sprawling order, he’s certainly tried his hardest to do as much as he can, unilaterally, to reverse the Obama administration’s climate progress.

But there are still hurdles the Trump administration must clear in order to fully undo final rules; the Clean Power Plan, for instance, will need to go through a rule-making process, which includes periods for public comment, before a new rule can be finalized. It will also need to defend any changes to the rule, a task potentially made much more difficult in light of Trump’s many public statements about his intent to kill the Clean Power Plan, words that could come back to haunt a Trump administration defending changes to the plan as neither arbitrary nor politically motivated. In a call with reporters on Monday night, a senior White House official acknowledged that the rewriting of the Clean Power Plan would likely face legal challenges in court, and that the final rule would “likely take some time.”

Environmental legal experts agree with that analysis.

“Each of these rollbacks face many obstacles,” David Doniger, senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program, said on a press call in advance of the order. “The orders we may see don’t change the rules on the books, and tearing those rules down requires going through the same steps as it took to build them up.”

“The orders we may see don’t change the rules on the books, and tearing those rules down requires going through the same steps as it took to build them up.”

In rolling back Obama-era regulations or rules, the Trump administration will also have to contend with years of established environmental law. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling found that the EPA has authority, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate carbon dioxide — if the EPA chooses to renege on that authority, it’s likely that the agency will be challenged in court. The same goes for using the Social Cost of Carbon in decision-making: a different 2007 court order directed the George W. Bush administration to consider the value of cutting carbon pollution in creating vehicle fuel economy standards, and it’s likely environmental groups would challenge future decisions that do not take the value of cutting carbon dioxide into account.

And while it’s unclear exactly how those challenges will play out in court, one thing appears certain: environmental groups are ready to fight.

“This is the starting gun,” Sierra Club’s Coequty said of the order. “It initiates a very long fight.”

UPDATE: An earlier version of this piece included action’s by President Trump to rescind Obama-era executive orders on climate and flood risk management, climate and federal building efficiency, and climate and international development, per initial reports. Those were not ultimately included in the final order.