Those who trembled while waiting for US President Donald Trump to drop major bombs on the environment during his speech before Congress on Tuesday would have been tentatively relieved by the time he wrapped it up.
After campaigning on promises to set American commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement ablaze, torch regulations on coal, gas and fracking, and fire up the idyllic landscape of the dwindling coal industry, Trump lit few matches.
In fact, after a chaotic five weeks in which Trump has declared war on some fact, institution, protocol, politician, minority group or Hollywood movie star with nearly every public utterance, his sanded-down words before a joint session on Capitol Hill read like a merciful, if heavily scripted, reprieve.
On Wednesday, headlines brought the kind of relief you feel after the fingernails stop raking the blackboard, or when the abusive parent retires for bed: short-lived.
In the quiet before the next storm it’s worth reflecting on what Trump has already done in an impressively short period of time, all of which was largely left out of the speech.
The biggest threat posed by the Trump administration thus far is the corrosive pick of Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general, to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruitt has spent his career suing the EPA on behalf of the oil and gas industry and he’s seen as uniquely qualified to destroy the agency from the inside. He’ll do it with less money: According to the budget publicized by Trump in the lead up to his speech, this year’s EPA funding will sink from $8 billion to $6 billion.
Just before his speech on Tuesday, Trump signed an order green lighting Pruitt’s review and eventual gutting of the Clean Water Rule that protects wetlands and streams feeding drinking water supplies. This could lead to slackening pollution rules on bodies of water as big as Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and the Mississippi River.
The elephant Trump and Pruitt really want to bag, however, is the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era climate change regulation aimed at curbing emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants.
The Clean Power Plan was America’s first serious foray into the world of international climate saving politics by assigning US regions the homework of figuring out how to cut their carbon emissions from energy production by 32 percent before 2030 in the hopes of spurring natural gas and renewable development.
Republican attorneys general, including Pruitt, immediately challenged the rule, and it’s been tied up in court ever since. But that might be what saves it: Dismantling the coal plant and water rules for good would require reinterpreting environmental legislation passed by Congress decades ago, namely the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972, both of which give the EPA the authority to determine what pollution in fact is.
But by granting Pruitt the authority to chip away at both regulations, and less money to enforce them, Trump has done perhaps all he needs to. The Clean Power Plan is almost certainly headed for the Supreme Court, and Trump has already nominated a conservative to take the court’s vacant tie-breaking seat whose confirmation the Democratic minority in the Senate won’t be able to scuttle.
In the meantime, by delaying enforcement of the Clean Power Plan, the White House has done much to erode America’s moral authority in global climate discussions like the annual UN Conference of Parties talks.
Significantly, Trump’s speech on Tuesday night mentioned none of this. The omission makes sense – Trump would be hard pressed to find among his constituents anyone who thinks keeping the air and the water clean is a bad idea.
A poll published by Reuters in January, when the shadow over environmental policy was beginning to darken, showed that 61 percent of voters want to keep or strengthen the EPA’s powers to protect the environment. Another poll from September shows seven in ten Americans are even willing to pay more on their electricity bills if it means defending against climate change.
Instead of trying to persuade those voters that no one needs to police the quality of their air or water – many of them the same voters to whom he cruelly promised coal jobs – Trump’s plan seems not to get bogged down by assassinating any specific environmental regulation.
That will be Pruitt’s job. And if he’s allowed to do it quietly behind the scenes, many voters may soon find themselves sick of this administration in more ways than one.