March 29, 2017: Explaining Trump’s new executive order on coal and climate

I have been a little slow to produce writing this week, because I was waiting for the executive order to be signed and to explore more in depth the details and significance. The next section of this post explains the administration’s new policy on climate change and the most extreme rolling back of president Obama’s climate change policies to date.


Trump signs executive order rolling back Obama-era climate protections

President Trump signed an “Energy Independence” executive order on Tuesday, March 28, that rolls back a significant portion of President Obama’s climate change legacy. This is the single-biggest piece of environmental policy move of his nascent presidency. The executive order is a massive document- the Atlantic refers to as an “omnibus” order.  It tackles a number of different issue areas within the same, big, order. While signing, Trump celebrated an end to the so-called “war on coal” via federal regulation.  

The executive order does a number of things:

  • Directs EPA to re-write Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). CPP is the center of President Obama’s climate change mitigation efforts. The Plan would have mandated states reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by a flexible, but gradually increasing amount. It has been held up in Court since February 2016, but now it seems that EPA administrator Pruitt will attempt to eliminated.

Entirely eliminating the CPP will be a daunting task. Vox’s Blad Plumer wrote an excellent piece on the difficulty that the administration and EPA will face in revoking the rule. Essentially, this is a federal rule that is backed up by both the legal authority of EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, and a finding by EPA that carbon dioxide endangers public well-being; the “endangerment finding”. To eliminate or even weaken a rule, the administration will have to go through a laborious process with numerous opportunities for legal challenges, and it will have to justify in court why any proposed changes to the rule (including its elimination) is allowable or desirable. Essentially, the EPA has an authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and that authority has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and it is now difficult legally for the agency to not regulate greenhouse gases. This will be the most interesting and consequential legal/administrative battle in the coming years on climate. In a very plausible scenario, EPA issues a new rule that keeps some of the original provisions of the CPP, but in a much weaker way.

  • Orders DOI and EPA  to reconsider regulations on fracking and methane emissions from natural gas. These regulations, like the re-writing of the CPP, will take time to complete.
  • Directs DOI to begin allowing the leasing of federal land for coal extraction in the West.
  • Orders a review of the social cost of carbon metric (SCC). SCC, currently set at $36/ton, is used by regulatory agencies to justify climate change regulations. This is a BIG DEAL. The administration will likely now explore ways to eliminate or reduce the SCC metric. However, like any redrawing of the Clean Power plan, reconsidering the SCC metric is complicated by EPA’s established regulatory authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Formally reducing or eliminating the metric will certainly incur lawsuits, which I would guess the agency is bound to lose.
  • Rescinds an order that guides agencies how to properly take into account climate change in the NEPA process. It is unclear how exactly this will affect NEPA and agency decision-making. Agencies are still required to take into account potential environmental harms, of which climate change is one, but this order will make how they deal with the subject far less clear.
  • A lot of other stuff: basically rescinding any presidential order or memorandum Barack Obama ever issued on climate change.


There is a lot to say about this order. This course of action certainly will not produce the stated goals of (1) promoting American energy independence, and (2) bringing back coal jobs. Both of these problems have their roots in a shifting economic landscape.

Furthermore,  this is a half direct-policy order and half a guiding order to federal agencies. This is important to keep in mind. Some of the order immediately changes the federal environmental policy landscape. Most of the order, however, including the reconsidering the CPP and the SCC, are long term directives for agencies that guide them towards certain outcomes. They cannot be changed immediately, and they cannot be changed with a stroke of the president’s pen. I think that it is easy to cry wolf about all of the things the Trump administration is doing here, and in the process miss a lot of the opportunities that NGOs, civil servants, and the public have to engage with the process and push back. Long term-directives, however, are also insidious in that they can impact the regulatory authority of agencies in the long term.


March 24, 2017: Keystone XL is back

State Department approves Keystone XL Pipeline

On Friday, March 24, the State Department issued cross-border permits to developer TransCanada, that allow the company to build its controversial $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline. The decision reverses an Obama administration move to not issue the permits in 2015. Keystone XL is remarkable in that it has been a rallying cry for environmentalists and their campaigns to combat global climate change. The Trump administration’s decision is not surprising, as all signs pointed towards the administration green-lighting the project. Still, this move is a symbolic and material defeat for environmental groups and the planet, and a political win for President Trump. The President, when announcing that the permits had been issued, stated that this was a “great day for jobs and energy independence”.


Senate marches forward repeal of predator hunting moratorium in Alaska refuges

Senate passed H.J. Res 69, which would waive the “Alaska National Wildlife Refuge Rule”, which essentially bans the hunting of predators in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge System. Sponsor Don Young (R-AK) said in a statement that the Rule “fundamentally destroys a cooperative relationship between Alaska and the Federal Government”. This is essentially an argument about state sovereignty and the ability of states to make decisions about their own natural resources. The rule passed mostly along party lines 52-47. The bill already passed the House, and now heads to the President’s desk. Trump is likely to sign the measure, although I doubt this is a priority of his administration. 

March 21, 2017: Saying goodbye to fuel economy standards, CRAZY proposed budget cuts for EPA


EPA announces that it will revisit standards on auto emissions and fuel economy for cars and light trucks

Under President Obama, EPA issued a rule that mandated that cars and light-duty trucks reach 54.5 mpg by the year 2025. This was a key part of the Obama administration’s approach to combating climate change and was often forgotten relative to EPA’s Clean Power Plan. On March 15, EPA and DOT issued a statement announcing that their agencies would work on rewriting that rule. EPA administrator Pruitt called the previous auto standards “costly for automakers and the American people”. All signs point to the administration nixing any mandated increases in fuel efficiency standards.

The status of the State of California greatly complicates this move. California has a special waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows it to exceed federal standards on automobile emissions. It is possible that the waiver will be rescinded, but if California is able to mandate higher-efficiency vehicles, the market power of the state has the potential to inflate fuel-economy standards everywhere. Therefore, the Trump administration’s regulatory re-evaluation may not matter if California is able to keep its higher standards.


On Friday March 24, the California Air Resources Board approved a review of its current automobile standards, which will remain in place through the year 2025. The auto standards, according to Scientific American, mandate that automobile manufacturers looking to sell cars in the state must “produce an increasing percentage of zero-emissions vehicles… and cut tailpipe greenhouse gas and particulate emissions”. Unless Trump’s EPA acts to challenge this assertion, California will likely continue to inflate auto emissions standards nationwide. 


Trump’s desired budget cuts to EPA, Interior clarified… but will they happen?

On Thursday, March 16th, the White House released a 62-page budget outline for FY2018. The budget includes draconian cuts to EPA, the Interior Department, and the USDA coupled with significant increases in military & defense spending.

The budget proposes a $2.6 billion cut to EPA. This includes the elimination of 3,200 jobs and the closure of two district offices, which are instrumental in overseeing and implementing federal policies in coordination with the states. The cuts are aimed at a number of key EPA programs: it would “discontinue” funding for Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, dramatically reduce money for Superfund cleanup sites (which Scott Pruitt listed as an EPA priority), reduce money for EPA enforcement (likely to allow states more leeway over certain issue areas), along with the elimination or reduction of a large number of other national and regional programs. This is a radical policy proposal, and has received a LOT of push back from civil society and from Democrats. The DOI faces a smaller, but still significant 12 percent reduction in its budget.  The proposed budget slashes programs acquiring new public lands, various land management programs, and smaller land conservation departments. This all seems to be a path towards less federal control over public lands via a weakened Interior Department.

This budget, as it stands, will not pass.

Congressional Republicans do love to cut EPA and they will cut EPA. However, this is an incredibly radical slash to EPA, an agency that must carry out basic environmental enforcement measures. It will be very interesting to watch the budget as it gets passed back and forth between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the White House. Republicans may try to take the middle ground and appear to be sane by rejecting Donald Trump’s proposed budget plans. However, I fully expect to see significant cuts to climate change and renewable programs so long as Republicans hold power in Washington. What they choose to leave out of the budget will be the real story.


Trump poised to sign a BIG executive order rolling back power plant rules, other climate change protections

All signs pointed to the signing of a new executive order rolling back climate and energy rules last week (March 13), but that didn’t happen. This strategy seems to be a hallmark of this administration; they hint at changes and then wait to execute them. Regardless, news sources predict that the order will direct EPA to rewrite Obama’s Clean Power Plan, allow coal plant leasing on federal lands, and revise the ways that climate is factored into decision-making in federal agencies (likely through a review of the incredibly important Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) metric). This will be, in my mind, the single biggest piece of environmental policy coming out of the administration to date. As this happens, i will be sure to cover the details of the administration’s approach and its implications.

Something Interesting

A handful of House Republicans introduced a Resolution that calls on the chamber to engage in “conservative environmental stewardship”. The Resolution recognizes that environmental problems like climate change exist and are bad, and calls for conservative private and public sector solutions to existing problems. This will not be passed by the House as doctrine, but it is interesting to see that there is a small constituency of Republicans favoring climate protection policies.

March 9, 2017: More deregulation!

On Thursday, March 9, 2017, the administrator of the EPA doubted that carbon dioxide causes global warming. I’ll say that again: On Thursday, March 9, 2017, the administrator of the EPA doubted that carbon dioxide causes global warming. This is obviously pretty crazy stuff. What is interesting here is that essentially nobody denies that the greenhouse effect exists. Conservatives tend to argue that we don’t know the extent of the impact or how much anthropocentric greenhouse gas emissions affect larger planetary cycles. This is different and this is radical. There are rumors of rollbacks on auto standards as well as more executive orders on climate and energy coming. Stay posted.


Senate votes to eliminate BLM land management regulations

On Tuesday, the Senate voted to eliminate BLM’s “Planning 2.0 Rule”. The rule attempted to increase public involvement in the process of managing land in a variety of ways, as well as to “modernize” the land management process more generally. Conservatives and industry groups have criticized the rule since its instatement towards the end of the Obama administration because it gives the federal government too much authority over management decisions better left to the states or other local governments. Interestingly, Congressional Republicans have supported other measures that enhance “public transparency” on regulations when the intended action is to prevent further regulations.

This is the third environmental-related regulation elimination ace under the Congressional Review Act to pass both chambers and make it to the President’s desk.


Quote of the Week:

“Even if every one of Obama’s environmental regulations—the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards; the Cross State Air Pollution Rule; the Coal Ash Rule; the Effluent Limitations Guidelines for wastewater discharge, and section 316(b) of the Clean Water Act —were all struck down tomorrow, the effect on jobs in Appalachia would still be negligible”.

– Politico

March 7, 2017: Immigration and health care dominate this week, but environmental changes coming


This news cycle was dominated by other high profile matters in Washington. On Monday, Donald Trump released a new version of his executive order barring migration from six predominantly Muslim countries. Also on Monday, House Republicans released their long-awaited plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. There is also big news coming out of EPA, with Scott Pruitt and the agency expected to announce that it will begin to review and reopen the auto emission standards set by the Obama administration sometime this week or next week. As the details come out, I will cover it.


Perry confirmed as energy secretary

On Friday March 7, the Senate confirmed Rick Perry as the Secretary for the Department of Energy. Perry was a very conservative governor, however his confirmation to the DOE was not very controversial. It remains to be seen what direction Perry will take the DOE in terms of energy policy and renewables. Perry denies the existence of climate change and sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.


EPA withdraws pollutant information request from oil and gas producers

EPA released a statement  saying that they would no longer pursue the oil and gas industry for information related to their methane emissions. The effort to get industry to disclose emissions was a part of an Obama-era effort to quantify and regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Scott Pruitt released a statement calling the withdrawal a step to “reduce burdens on business”.

In substance, this action is very small. However, it represents yet another reversal in policy direction. Obama’s EPA had taken the first steps towards regulating a very powerful greenhouse gas, and this should be viewed as a signal that dropping clean air rules and regulations is the policy of the new administration. The media has covered this event as the beginning of Pruitt and Trump’s rollback of clean air rules. There has been much uproar over more visible policy changes like the executive orders on pipelines and draconian bills introduced in the House over the past month. I think that these large issues make smaller changes such as this less visible and easier to ignore. This represents a more subtle, step-by-step and measured approach to regulatory rollback that I think is more dangerous (in terms of protecting existing regulation) than more extreme actions.


March 3, 2017: A lot happening in a very short time

Zinke Confirmed as Interior Secretary

Montana representative Ryan Zinke was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as Interior Secretary. As Interior Secretary, Zinke will have authority and will set policy directions on a number of critical issues. Zinke is an interesting case, as he has both opposed efforts to transfer federal lands out of federal hands (and opposed such a move in his Senate confirmation hearing), but is also a vocal supporter of the expansion and exploration of extractive industry and energy development on public lands. As a Representative, Zinke voted against wildlife protection expansions to different species under the Endangered Species Act including the contentious sage grouse. He also voted to override water flow minimums to preserve fish species during the Californian drought, opting instead to use that water to divert to agriculture. Zinke is a relatively unknown politician and he is likely to reverse a number of the federal lands policies set by the Obama administration and former administrator Sally Jewell. His confirmation is only the beginning and as soon as DOi begins acting, it will become increasingly clear the direction Zinke and the Trump administration intend to take the department and its jurisdiction.


EPA cuts clarified:

On Tuesday, some specifics came out of the Office of Management and Budget regarding proposed budget cuts at EPA as a part of the fiscal year 2018 budget. The administration has proposed a 20% reduction of the agency staff, a budget cut of around 25% (which would total around $2 billion), and the elimination of a number of EPA programs. Programs included, according to InsideEPA, include grants for brownfield redevelopment and diesel engines, as well as money that goes towards the implementation of the Clean Power Plan. This would constitute a dramatic weakening of the agencies ability to regulate industry, and specifically would cut back on the climate change programs that EPA has in place. A full list of proposed EPA cuts can be found here, courtesy of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. It’s quite a list. 

Again, this is a preliminary proposal. It is very unlikely that even a conservative Congress leaves in place such dramatic cuts. I would expect many of the energy and climate-related programs will be dismantled, but it is difficult to imagine a number of local or regional clean-up programs and grants will be cut to the level the administration is calling for.


Trump signs CWA executive order

On Tuesday, Feb 28, President Trump signed an executive order directing the EPA to begin re-evaluating the Water of the US Rule (WOTUS). WOTUS, issued in 2015, clarifies and extends what waterways are protected under the Clean Air Act. Opposition to the Rule has been intense among conservatives and industry groups, who hold up the Rule as a perfect example of EPA stepping beyond its legal bounds.

The order itself does not eliminate the WOTUS Rule. Rather, it directs EPA to begin the long and arduous process of rewriting the rule in such a way that makes it irrelevant. It is important to remember that agency rule changes must be supported in court, and so the administration and EPA will have to provide sufficient justification beyond “we want to get rid of this rule because we think it hurts business”. Jonathan Swain of axios tweeted out a copy of the Order that he was able to get his hands on.

During the signing of the order itself, President Trump (that is getting easier and easier to write), bought into the conservative rhetoric of the WOTUS Rule extending federal protections over “puddles”. On Thursday, EPA officials argued that there is Supreme Court precedent that would allow the quick revision of the WOTUS Rule in favor of a weaker rule.


House passes two bills aimed to increase regulatory oversight, hamstring regulations.

The House passed two bills this week that are now being sent to the Senate, H.R. 998 and H.R. 1004. H.R 998, the “SCRUB Act”, creates a regulatory review commission that reviews the Code of Federal Regulations, and identifies old, “unnecessary or obsolete” major rules and regulations to eliminate. To repeal or alter a rule or regulation identified by the commission, Congress can approve or deny those recommendations. Essentially, the Senate appoints members to a commission who can identify rules to be repealed, and then Congress has the final say on the matter.

H.R 1004, the “Regulatory Integrity Act of 2017”, intends to give the “public” greater access to knowledge about proposed regulations. It mandates that regulatory agencies publish the details of a regulation before the regulation is established. This bill is not a severe challenge to regulations, but it does have two distinct effects: slowing down the regulatory process, and potentially giving industry groups and interests greater firepower and access points to object to or attempt to halt potential regulations. This is not a new piece of legislation. It has passed the House in previous Congressional sessions, but never advanced given President Obama’s veto powers.

Taken together, these acts represent a both symbolic and practical attempt to slow down the regulatory process and exert Congressional controls over agency regulation.