The dismantling of Obama’s climate legacy by a President Donald Trump

Trump has promised to roll back President Obama’s landmark environmental regulations. Could he do it?

CREDIT: iStock/Dylan Petrohilos, ThinkProgress
CREDIT: iStock/Dylan Petrohilos, ThinkProgress

In September, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump took the stage at a meeting of natural gas and energy industry leaders and threatened to undo eight years of environmental progress.

“Regulations are becoming a major industry right now,” Trump quipped. “We’re going to make it a much smaller industry, maybe a minor industry.”

He went on to promise to undo the cornerstone of Obama’s domestic climate agenda— the Clean Power Plan — as well as roll back the Waters of the United States Rule, which would protect the drinking water of millions of Americans. He pledged to undo the Obama administration’s moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, and promised to conduct a top-down review of all “anti-coal regulations issued by the Obama administration.”

And since he was speaking to an audience largely interested in domestic energy policies, he didn’t even mention his past promise to cancel the historic Paris climate agreement.

“A Trump administration… would be more of an outlier compared with any previous administration I can think of.”

Climate scientists have said that Trump’s policy proposals demonstrate “incredible ignorance” and constitute “an existential threat to this planet.”


But the danger of a Trump presidency to Obama’s climate legacy — and the environment writ large — hinges solely on his ability to make good on his policy promises. Which raises the question: How easy would it be for a President Trump to undo Obama’s environmental progress?

The answer, according to experts, is complicated. When it comes to undoing finalized regulations, Trump would likely have limited success, but there are a handful of other tactics — from appointing environmentally-unfriendly Supreme Court justices to simply failing to enforce environmental regulations — that could have an extremely chilling effect on domestic climate action. And while a President Trump might not be able to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement for years, simply having a climate denier as president could undermine the country’s position in climate negotiations worldwide.

“A Trump administration, with regards to energy and environment, would be more of an outlier compared with any previous administration I can think of,” Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, told ThinkProgress. “The big authority in environment and energy would be presidential appointees, and then the potential for working with Congress on some initiatives.”

The Supreme Court

One of the most immediate — and lasting — ways a Trump presidency could dismantle environmental progress is through appointments to the Supreme Court. Both the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule are currently being litigated in lower courts, and whatever the outcome, will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

“Whoever the next president is will be able to appoint the next Supreme Court justice, which will hold a very key position,” Melissa Scanlan, director of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School, told ThinkProgress. “The decision to review those cases and then to decide on them will be strongly influenced by whoever the next Supreme Court justice is.”


In late September, Trump released the finalized list of candidates he would consider nominating to the Supreme Court, and thanked both the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation for helping to craft the list.

Both organizations have a strong history of climate denial. The Federalist Society names Exxon as one of its funders, and has been extremely outspoken about several state attorneys general investigating Exxon’s knowledge of climate science, which one of its members called a “climate change inquisition.” The Heritage Foundation, likewise, has long worked to fuel climate denial, arguing that current climate science does not warrant the kinds of strong policies proposed by environmentalists. In 2016, senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky called climate change “a contentious and unproven scientific theory.”

Both the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society receive large sums of money from petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch, who have also funded challenges to the Clean Power Plan.

It’s safe to assume that a candidate suggested by either the Heritage Foundation or the Federalist Society would likely be unsympathetic to arguments in favor of the Clean Power Plan, or the Waters of the United States Rule. And since Justice Antonin Scalia effectively served as the deciding vote in the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend the Clean Power Plan back in February, it’s reasonable to assume his replacement would serve as the deciding vote in the plan’s over constitutionality. Suffice it to say, in appointing a Supreme Court justice, Trump would have huge influence over the court’s final decision on the Clean Power Plan.

Rules and regulations

According to Susan Dudley, director of George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center, Trump’s claims that he would reverse the bulk of Obama’s environmental regulations is a little far-fetched.

CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

“It’s not easy,” she told ThinkProgress. “There has been some statements about how ‘I’m going to get rid of them on Day 1,’ and that’s impossible. For a regulation that is final and in effect, a new president would have to start the rule making process di nuovo, and that takes a lot of time.”


Therefore, rules that have already been finalized under the Obama administration —like the coal ash disposal rule, the rule regulating methane from new oil and gas operations, the rule requiring better fuel efficiency for heavy trucks, the rule regulating ozone pollution — would be pretty difficult for a Trump administration to dismantle. He would have to direct an agency to start the rule-making process from scratch, which even on a fast-tracked timeline takes about a year. Then, since there would be two competing regulations, the administration would likely face litigation about the necessity of the new rule.

“Especially with rules that are already on the books, there is going to be an entire administrative record and agency explanation justifying that rule,” Sanne Knudsen, professor of environmental law at the University of Washington told ThinkProgress. “You can imagine that the agency that comes along later in time is not just justifying a new rule based on nothing — they are also having to justify the change.”

But that process only holds true for existing, final rules, not proposed rules. And a few crucial climate regulations created by the Obama administration are either only proposed, or rest on executive action — things that an incoming administration could easily dismantle.

That means the administration’s pause on coal leases on federal land could easily be lifted by Trump — and he has pledged to do just that. Trump could also easily reverse the EPA’s new emissions standards for airlines, which are still in their proposed state.

“For rules that have been proposed but are not final, the new president could do anything to those,” GWU’s Dudley said.

So proposed regulations, like the moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, would be fair game to a President Trump. What’s more, a second-term Trump administration would have influence over areas that could be open to drilling when they create their five year leasing plan for oil and gas (the current one is set to expire in 2022).

Paris climate agreement

In stump after stump, Trump has promised to “cancel” the Paris agreement, a historic agreement signed by almost 200 nations last year that pledged to keep the world well under 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

The good news is that Trump could not unilaterally cancel the agreement — it entered into force in October and is set to go into effect in early November. For a country to leave the agreement, they must wait until the treaty has been effective for three years. At that point, it takes a year for a country to leave — so a President Trump could begin the process of leaving the treaty before his first term, but unless he was re-elected, the next president could ostensibly undo that decision.

A much more aggressive option would be for a President Trump to withdraw the United States from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty that basically paved the way for the Paris agreement. A country can withdraw from the UNFCCC within a year, which would effectively withdraw the country from the Paris agreement as well.

Chilling effect of a denier president

Beyond actionable ways that a President Trump could roll back regulations, experts warned that even inaction, especially when it comes to climate change, can be a dangerous policy. It’s likely that a President Trump — and the people he appointed to run agencies like the EPA and the Department of the Interior — would both seek to rollback regulations and fail to move any real climate policy forward.

“I think there’s the more underlying or less obvious result or consequence, which is failing to move important issues forward,” UW’s Knudsen said. “It’s one thing to roll back on existing regulations, but it’s another thing to fail to move issues like climate change forward.”

Things like the Clean Power Plan, or the United States’ domestic pledges with regards to the Paris agreement, are more of a ceiling than a floor with regards to climate action — both are a start, but scientists agree that policies and commitments alike need to become increasingly stringent if measurable climate action is to be made.

And the next president won’t have much time to make those policy improvements before the consequences of climate change — sea level rise, ocean acidification, changing precipitation patterns — become increasingly dangerous.

“Once the Arctic ice melts and glaciers melt, sea level rises. Once that gets set in motion, you can’t turn back the clock,” Vermont Law School’s Scanlan said. “The issue is that we don’t have time to mess around. We need to rapidly decarbonize the economy, and we need a president who will move the United States in that direction.”