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.

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Author: Jared Sousa

Macalester College '2017, Political Science and Environmental Studies

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