Since the Trump administration came to power two years ago, it has led a hostile assault on environmental regulation, seeking to knock down rules the fossil fuel industry considers bothersome and championing the cause of ignoring climate change.
The consequences of this approach could be catastrophic. Regulations on pollution from power plants and the oil and gas industry are in jeopardy, and limits on toxic pesticides used by farmers have been threatened. Efforts launched by previous presidents to reel in automotive emissions are in line for scrapping, and some polluters could be freed to foul protected water sources.
The assault has taken on ideological levels as well. The administration is bellicose in propagating the notion that climate change is a hoax, and has sought to disentangle the US from the Paris Climate Accord. Each cold snap in America brings a flurry of tweets from President Trump citing the wintery weather as proof the world isn’t warming. His administration has made public point of ignoring findings compiled by its own government that detail the threats climate change poses for the US economy. The prosecution of environmental crimes has also fallen in the hands of the Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency as its current administrator, Andrew Wheeler, bleeds the budget for prosecuting them.
On the world stage, administration officials have sought to block billions of dollars in promised US funding to the Green Climate Fund, a UN-led initiative to help developing countries adapt to climate change.
Then, last week, the White House formed a climate change committee of its own, headed by William Happer, an ideologue who says carbon dioxide – one of the most potent heat-trapping greenhouse gases – is beneficial to humanity.
But much of what the Trump administration and its friends in the fossil fuel industry have called meddlesome environmental bureaucracy has turned out to be more durable than expected. Time and again, the White House’s challenges to US air pollution standards have been delayed by courts, beset by lawsuits, and sterilized by the very rule-making procedures they seek to thwart.
The Trump administration’s attack on the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s signature effort to cut US carbon emissions by 28 percent, has been especially sluggish. The plan, which would curtail the amount of carbon dioxide power plants are allowed to emit, was one of the Obama Administration’s central pledges to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. Because of that, it has become a target of particular rage from Trump’s coal-friendly administration.
But just because the White House doesn’t like the regulation doesn’t mean the president or his EPA can unilaterally throw it out.
Under US law, Trump’s administration must produce a replacement for the air regulations, which it didn’t get around to doing until August, when it proposed its so-called Affordable Clean Energy Plan. This proposal offers clever new ways of measuring power plant emissions, which would allow old coal plants to continue polluting.
But the Trump proposal has not been finalized, and will be subject to months, if not years, of judicial scrutiny before it can take effect. Arguments the Trump administration’s lawyers will have to make in court will center on proving that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and thus not subject to government regulation.
That will be a hard sell to the US, which has since 1970 – and the passage of the Clean Air Act – upheld the government’s right to do exactly that. At present, legal battles to do away with the Clean Power Plan look like they will run well past 2020, when Trump faces a pitched battle for reelection.
Efforts by the Trump Administration to roll back obligations of the oil and gas industry to reduce methane emissions have been hamstrung as well. Specifically, Trump’s EPA last August tried to derail the enforcement of an Obama-era rule requiring oil and gas drillers to repair methane leaks in their pipelines.
Attorneys general from numerous US states as well as environmental groups, pounced, arguing in court that the EPA had no authority to nullify compliance requirements by administrative fiat. The District of Columbia Circuit Court – the same court where arguments against the Clean Power Plan will eventually be argued – agreed.
It ruled that the EPA itself was required to uphold the methane rules until it came up with a better replacement, which itself would be subject to the usual public notice and comment process – a process that typically lasts around two years. This, too, would postpone attacks on Obama-era methane rules to well beyond the next presidential election cycle.
Efforts by the Trump administration to cast aside Obama-era proposals to limit car and truck emissions are also facing long odds in US courts, and will likely be ensnarled in public notice rules until beyond the Trump era – when a new, more environmentally progressive government could take the reigns.
But while the worst of what Trump promised to do to environmental regulation in the United States has been delayed, so too has the best of what the country can offer. Under the Obama administration, the rest of the world was beginning to take pledges from the world’s second biggest emitter seriously. Now, the sense of a US commitment to curbing the worst of climate change is lost.
On the positive side, nearly every candidate lining up to oppose President Trump’s reelection next year is signing on to an ambitious climate agenda, with adherence to the so-called Green New Deal becoming a litmus test for any Democratic party hopeful.
But the trust that has been squandered is the hardest to recover – and that will be among the biggest environmental casualties of the Trump era.