President Donald Trump ordered his administration to begin dismantling his predecessor’s climate change policies on Tuesday with a sweeping directive to end what he called a “crushing attack” on the U.S. economy — by halting efforts to reduce the carbon pollution of electric utilities, oil and gas drillers and coal miners.
The executive order Trump signed represents his biggest blow yet to former President Barack Obama’s climate legacy. But it does not go as far as some conservatives would like to dismantle the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, nor will it begin to separate the U.S. from a landmark international climate accord — two areas of intense disagreement within the administration.
“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump told an audience at the EPA headquarters signing, where he was joined by a group of coal miners whom he promised would be put back to work quickly.
“We’re going to have clean coal. Really clean coal,” Trump added. “Together we will create millions of good American jobs, also so many energy jobs, and really lead to unbelievable prosperity.”
Democrats argue that Trump is ignoring the risks of climate change for the sake of rewarding supporters in the fossil fuel industry.
“Thanks to this executive order, our future is looking darker, it’s looking dirtier and it’s looking less prosperous,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del) told a press conference. “Today Donald Trump is shirking our nation’s responsibilities, disregarding clear science and undoing the significant progress that we’ve made to ensure we leave a better, more sustainable planet for generations to come.”
After last week’s embarrassing failure of Trump’s attempt to repeal and replace Obama’s health care law, the energy executive order offers the president a chance to refocus on another key campaign-trail promise: unleashing the American energy industry. The order comes on the heels of Trump’s move to ease Obama’s ambitious vehicle fuel efficiency requirements and his order to reverse EPA’s controversial Waters of the U.S. rule. The president has also recently signed legislation undoing Obama-era rules on Appalachian coal mining and energy companies’ payments to foreign governments.
Trump order calls for the EPA to rewrite tough rules that critics said make it virtually impossible to build a new coal-fired power plant, and he instructed the Interior Department to end Obama’s moratorium on new coal mines on federal lands, among other steps.
Additionally, the president’s “energy independence” executive order also repeals several Obama-era environmental directives aimed at reducing the federal government’s own carbon footprint, and it directs agencies to ferret out any additional policies that “result in impediments” to U.S. energy production, a likely reference to restrictions on fracking and offshore drilling. The president also told federal regulators to stop using the “social cost of carbon,” which attempts to quantify the effects of climate change, in economic analyses of future rules.
“There is every reason to believe that the federal government will no longer seek to punish American consumers and businesses for using the energy resources that fuel our economy,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said in a statement welcoming the order.
But Trump has not ordered EPA to reconsider the underlying policy that lets it regulate carbon emissions — the 2009 “endangerment finding” in which it declared that greenhouse gas pollution threatens human health and welfare. Nor will he address whether the U.S. will stay in the 2015 Paris climate accord.
“We’re happy with it so far and we look forward to the right decisions on Paris and endangerment, but I think those are still to be made and they’re a ways down the road,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the former leader of Trump’s EPA transition team.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt went on national TV earlier this month to declare that carbon dioxide is not “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” a statement that is at odds with the conclusions of the vast majority of climate scientists, including those at his own agency. But Pruitt has not followed up on that statement with any effort to reverse the Obama-era endangerment finding — a factor that sources say contributed to last week’s abrupt departure of a Trump appointee from the agency.
On Monday, a writer for Breitbart.com, the site previously run by White House strategist Steve Bannon, suggested that a failure to revoke the endangerment finding would be grounds for Pruitt to resign.
“If Scott Pruitt is not up to that task, then maybe it’s about time he did the decent thing and handed over the reins to someone who is,” wrote James Delingpole, a prominent climate skeptic.
The White House has not ruled out later revisiting the endangerment finding, which Trump promised on the campaign trail to review. But environmentalists hope the administration decides that would be too much trouble, given that the policy already survived judicial scrutiny, and that courts are unlikely to support revoking it given the overwhelming scientific data on climate change.
Trump has not nominated anyone to fill key leadership positions below Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, leaving open the question of how quickly his order will yield any concrete results.
“It’s going to be harder if you don’t have those positions filled,” said David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Unless, actually, their intention is never to fill them and work through political operatives who are not accountable.”
Trump’s advisers are split over whether to withdraw from the Paris climate deal, which Obama joined with a pledge to reduce U.S. emissions at least 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The U.S. would face no penalty for missing that target, but many conservatives nonetheless say Trump should abandon the agreement altogether, as he pledged to do during the campaign.
But more moderate advisers, including Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, fear that pulling out would damage relations with key U.S. allies. Administration officials are now considering a middle-ground approach: Stay in the deal in exchange for more international support for technologies to reduce emissions from fossil fuels.
The order was also silent on a carbon tax, another issue that has become a flash point in disputes between moderates and hard-liners in the White House.
Despite the lofty rhetoric coming out of the White House, Tuesday’s order will have relatively little immediate effect.
It will take EPA years to rewrite its Clean Power Plan and accompanying rules on future power plants — both of which courts already had frozen while lawsuits play out.
The Trump administration plans to ask federal courts to suspend lawsuits over the EPA climate regulations and send the rules back to the agency to be rewritten or withdrawn. But the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the Clean Power Plan six months ago, does not have to go along. The appeals court judges could rule any day on the Clean Power Plan, and a separate D.C. Circuit panel has scheduled oral arguments on the future plant rule for April 17.
If EPA will not defend the regulation, environmentalists and states like California and New York have indicated they will step up and do so. And the ultimate fate of EPA’s climate authority likely will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the agency had to regulate greenhouse gases if they endanger public health — but did not say how.
Trump’s plans for the social cost of carbon are less clear.
The Obama administration estimated that each ton of carbon dioxide imposes $36 in costs to society to evaluate its climate rules. But Republicans and fossil energy supporters argued it arrived at that figure by counting global benefits while specifying only domestic costs — and they complain the metric was not subjected to a traditional notice-and-comment period before it was employed.
Critics also said the Obama administration used the social cost of carbon to impose stricter rules at EPA, the Energy Department and elsewhere that would be too costly to justify otherwise. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, complained that the amount was too low.
Whether Trump significantly lowers the cost of carbon or abolishes it altogether, the change could have a serious impact on energy regulations that will play out over a period of years. And it remains unclear how the courts might react. Federal judges have upheld agencies’ use of the metric before, but some may be inclined to give deference to the Trump administration over what amounts to a highly technical calculation.
Meanwhile, Trump’s order will also lead to the resumption of federal coal leasing. But major coal companies are hardly champing at the bit to sign new leases on federal land, although the Bureau of Land Management could make new tracts available relatively quickly. For example, a spokesman for Peabody Energy, which mines more U.S. coal than anyone else, told Bloomberg that the company will not need a new lease in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin for “approximately a decade.”
The Obama administration imposed a moratorium in February 2016 as part of a three-year review of the federal coal program. That followed reports from the Government Accountability Office, Interior’s inspector general and a coalition of environmentalists and government spending watchdogs that concluded Interior was undervaluing coal on public lands.
Zinke hinted earlier this month that he will continue the underlying review, despite lifting the moratorium, to ensure taxpayers get the full value of coal being sold off of federal lands.
It’s not clear that the moratorium cost any jobs, particularly since most coal mining is happening on private rather than public lands. The National Mining Association has not calculated the costs of the moratorium so far, but the group noted that coal mines on federal lands employ 14,000 miners.
Anthony Adragna and Esther Whieldon contributed to this report.
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