Goodbye pollution regulations, hello pretending climate science doesn’t exist.
After weeks of rumors and delays, President Trump signed an executive order on climate policies Tuesday at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency—an agency the Trump administration tried to hit with a $247 million cut for the current fiscal year, according to Politico, and is seeking a 31 percent budget cut for next year. The order includes a number of actions to undo Obama-era decisions addressing the greenhouse gas emissions that have already warmed the world’s climate about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s.
As part of the announcement, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said, “America’s leadership, the president’s leadership, on how we achieve energy independence while improving our environment in this country and abroad is determined more by the actions that this president is taking than at any time.”
Clean Power Plan ended
The main target of the effort is the EPA’s Clean Power Plan rule. The EPA finalized the rule last August, but a court challenge by a number of Republican state attorneys general (including new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt) has kept it in legal limbo. The goal of the Clean Power Plan was to reduce CO2 emissions from power plants to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The rule set reduction targets for each state to meet but left it to the states to decide how they wanted to meet it. It would have been particularly difficult for coal-burning plants to meet the new standards, and less burning coal would result in reductions of other pollutants as well.
In an interview on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt teased the order’s announcement, saying it would “address the past administration’s efforts to kill jobs across this country through the Clean Power Plan.” But the EPA’s official evaluation of the rule estimated that it would prevent about 3,600 premature deaths each year by 2030, along with 90,000 asthma attacks and 1,700 heart attacks annually. The EPA calculated a net economic benefit of $26 to $45 billion dollars by 2030 between the climate and health improvements.
The executive order directs the EPA to withdraw the Clean Power Plan and take it back to the drawing board. That will take time, and the agency will have to try to scientifically justify a new set of regulations in its place.
Some form of regulation is still required because the US Supreme Court ruled that the EPA was legally obligated to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, so long as the agency determined that greenhouse gas emissions threatened “public health and welfare.” In 2009, the Agency concluded they did—a key decision known as an “endangerment finding.” As a result, the EPA is now legally required to put out some sort of regulation like the Clean Power Plan.
Politico reported that the White House considered trying to revoke the endangerment finding as part of this executive order. Pruitt successfully argued against that idea because of how difficult it would be to do so in a way that survived lawsuits. Regardless, legal challenges to the EPA’s do-over on the Clean Power Plan are a certainty. In the meantime, a number of older coal-burning power plants that would likely have been retired may continue operating.
Ignoring climate change
The executive order also includes changes meant to boost production of fossil fuels on federal land. A moratorium on new coal leases instituted in January 2016, accompanying a review of the royalty rates, will be lifted immediately.
The Department of the Interior is directed to rewrite restrictions on fracking for oil and gas on federal land to make the restrictions more producer-friendly. Earlier rules tightened requirements for the construction of holding tanks and seals around wells, required disclosure of all the chemicals used in the fracking process, and limited emissions from natural gas leakage.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the order is that federal agencies will be told to stop considering climate change when reviewing infrastructure projects.
In addition, the federal government is directed to stop using EPA-developed “social cost of carbon” calculations to determine the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions when making policy decisions.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the order is that federal agencies will be told to stop considering climate change when reviewing infrastructure projects. That includes ignoring things like sea level rise and increasing flash flooding, which could easily destroy the infrastructure or render it irrelevant.
Notably missing from the executive order is any mention of the 2015 international Paris Agreement, in which nations pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions. While President Trump railed against the agreement on the campaign trail, there has reportedly been debate within the administration about the diplomatic risks of formally pulling out.
Specifically, Trump’s daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have opposed such a move. At the latest Heartland Institute conference promoting the rejection of climate science, the aide who ran the Trump administration’s EPA transition, Myron Ebell, expressed his disappointment by calling former ExxonMobil CEO Tillerson a “swamp creature” for failing to back a full withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
In lieu of withdrawal, the Trump administration may simply ignore the United States’ pledge, as it was not legally binding. Considering the new executive order and other recent actions, it’s already unlikely that the US will live up to its goal of reducing emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
Bringing back coal?
The executive order is being pitched as an effort to revive the declining coal-mining industry and increase “energy independence.” However, the industry’s jobs are threatened by much more than just pollution controls. Low natural gas prices driven by the considerable increase in US production (thanks to fracking) have made gas-burning power plants much more competitive, and automation has continued to reduce the number of employees needed at the remaining coal mines. And coal plants closed by stricter pollution standards like the Clean Power Plan would have been replaced not just by natural gas but by wind and solar generation—renewable, domestic sources that the Trump administration does not seem to think count for “energy independence.”
Referring to closures of coal mines in remarks before the signing of the executive order, Vice President Mike Pence said, “Those days are over because the war on coal is over.” President Trump echoed that sentiment in his own speech, adding, “Gonna have clean coal. Really clean coal.” How coal would be made clean wasn’t specified.
And in fact, there was some recognition that any metaphorical war was the least of coal’s worries. On stage for the signing was Robert Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy, a large coal mining company. In an interview with The Guardian yesterday, Murray himself said he told President Trump that job recovery in the industry is unlikely. “I suggested that he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words. He can’t bring them back,” Murray said.