By Joseph A. Davis
Texas Climate News
If you read only protest signs and headlines, you would be pretty sure President Donald Trump is well along in destroying the planet and poisoning its denizens. More than 100 days into his presidency, however, many of his deeds still have little more substance than a tweet.
How can we sort symbolism from consequence in the Trump administration and agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, and Energy Department? It’s worth the effort, though it remains an ongoing puzzle.
The Trump administration in conjunction with the Republican-controlled Congress have accomplished quite a bit in the first few months, by many standards. That is, if you consider rolling back former President Barack Obama’s environment and energy actions to be accomplishments. Using the Congressional Review Act, they rescinded some 14 regulations from the last months of 2016, some of them environmental. One, the Stream Protection Rule that restricted coal waste in waterways, was strongly opposed by the coal industry – though its repeal is unlikely to add jobs for coal miners. But they failed by a single vote in the Senate to repeal Obama’s rule to restrict methane emissions from oil and gas operations on federal lands.
Thousands marched against Trump’s policies in Austin on April 29
Many other Trump assaults on environmental and energy rules came via executive orders and other executive acts not requiring an act of Congress. Several news outlets and others are trying to track these: the New York Times, Sierra Club, National Geographic, High Country News, and the Sabin Center at Columbia University, for example. But almost all of these actions spawn instant lawsuits opposing them – and there are tracking sites on lawsuits as well, such as one from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Let’s look at a few cases of relevance to climate.
As of today Trump has not finally decided whether to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. That’s not to say he won’t – but he hasn’t yet.
Remember, during the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed he would “cancel” the Paris Agreement, a thing more easily said than done. While U.S. participation matters profoundly, a U.S. withdrawal would leave the agreement fully in effect and could take as long as four years to have any legal effect.
But he hasn’t yet. Instead, he has encouraged staff with conflicting views on the matter to meet and try (unsuccessfully) to hammer out a position. First, White House leakers said he wanted a decision before the G7 meeting May 26-27, but the latest word is that Trump will postpone his decision until after the G7 summit.
It’s worth noting that all other members of the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.) are firmly committed to the Paris Agreement, and are expected to lobby Trump heavily to stay in. Obviously, this gives him a bargaining chip in any G7 negotiations. It also gives the G7 a chance to try to change Trump’s mind. Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, reportedly supports staying in because it would preserve a U.S. seat at the table. Much of this can be decoded as a manifestation of Trumpian “deal”-making. Is the vow to “cancel” Paris a bluff?
The stateside meetings include Tillerson and Trump’s daughter Ivanka on the one hand, who want the U.S. to stay in the Paris pact, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and strategist Steve Bannon on the other hand, who want to pull out. Plus Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who wants to renegotiate. So far the meetings have been inconclusive and repeatedly rescheduled.
The meetings do, however, display a deeper pattern. Trump’s management style revels in setting underlings against one another – only to have the matter finally settled by a dramatic decree from Trump himself. However unpredictable, unprincipled or uninformed that decision might be. Such a scenario affirms Trump’s importance in the scheme of things. And it makes drama, which is what seems to fuel him. Stay tuned. Expect drama.
Previous presidents often set policy quietly behind the scenes. The nice thing about executive orders is that they guarantee TV coverage of Trump signing a leather-cased document whose text is not readable. The ritual ends with him holding the document up to exactly three camera angles and leaving the room without answering press questions (or in one case even signing the order).
After the 15-second clip on cable, there is usually scant coverage of what, if anything, happens as a result of the executive order.
That is something that matters. While the executive orders have varied in their effect, some amount to ordering an executive agency to “review” something and consider doing something about it. The reviews take time and their outcome may (for now at least) be unknowable. What the agency actually does may be a regulatory action – a procedure which can take years to finalize. And one which then will be promptly challenged in court – a process which can add more years to any definite outcome.
And you can bet that almost every single one of the Trump administration’s environmental rulemakings will indeed be challenged in court.
In terms of results, much depends on the form and content of the executive order. The legal authority of orders does not allow Trump to change a regulation with the swipe of a souvenir pen. What it does is allow him to do is order an employee of the executive branch to do something they are already legally authorized to do.
Wheat and Chaff
So which Trump actions are wheat and which are chaff? It is still a bit early to say about some of them, and more will be coming. But a quick general assessment can be made of many. Let’s just look at some relating to climate, energy and the environment.
• Controversial pipelines: This order did almost immediately change a Corps of Engineers permit decision on the Dakota Access Pipeline, allowing it to be completed, to go into service, and to leak almost immediately. For the Keystone XL pipeline, the restart process will be longer and more uncertain, more of its actual construction remains undone, and legal challenges loom larger. Half wheat, half chaff.
• Offshore drilling: While this multipart order is complex, it is legally iffy. The law allows a president to withdraw offshore tracts from drilling, but is silent and unclear on whether that is permanent or reversible. The law does allow the administration to modify leasing schedules – but leasing takes time and Trump will be pouring oil and gas into already glutted markets. Lawsuits challenging this order have already been filed. Possibly chaff.
• Climate rollback package: The executive order Trump signed March 28 was unlike most others – it was a package of many and various executive actions reversing Obama climate policies. Because many of those were executive actions to begin with, they were easily and decisively spiked by superseding executive action. Just one example was the Obama “guidance” mandating climate consideration during environmental impact statements – official documents listing proposed actions’ positive and negative environmental effects. That was one of many. Trump ordered agencies to come up with plans for lifting climate rules and policies – something guaranteed to keep things unsettled for some time. Mostly wheat.
• Clean Power Plan: Part of the above order was language targeting the Clean Power Plan – Obama’s cornerstone climate action pushing electric utilities away from coal as a fuel, which also serves as the principal step toward meeting the U.S. emission-reduction pledge under the Paris accord. The Trump administration’s determination not to press forward with the Clean Power Plan, which he promised in his campaign, seems so inevitable that executive orders may be irrelevant. Clearly, a long road of regulatory and legal jousting lies ahead. Unclear, however, is whether Trump’s EPA is legally obligated to replace it with another plan for limiting CO2. Also clear is that the shift from coal to gas and renewables for producing electricity will inevitably continue. Coal and coal-mining jobs will not come back. Mostly chaff.
• Methane disclosure: Less consequential than the methane rollback defeated in the Senate was EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s withdrawal of an Obama-era request for data on methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Because it was an information request, rather than a rule, it was easy to undo. But Obama’s data-collection effort could have been the basis for some future EPA rule tightening limits on methane. Oil and gas operators asked Scott Pruitt to kill the request and he obliged them almost immediately. Wheat.
• Coal leasing on federal lands: Environmentalists had applauded when President Obama declared a freeze on leasing of coal on federal lands pending a study of whether taxpayers were getting a fair return and of what the climate consequences were. Trump in late March lifted the moratorium. But given the downtrend in the market, Trump may be offering companies coal that no one wants. Environmentalists have filed suit challenging the action. Chaff.
Joseph A. Davis, a veteran independent journalist covering environmental and energy issues in the nation’s capital, is the Washington correspondent of Texas Climate News.