By Jennifer A. Dlouhy
March 14, 2017 - President Donald Trump is set to sign a sweeping directive to dramatically shrink the role climate change plays in decisions across the government, ranging from appliance standards to pipeline approvals, according to a person familiar with the administration’s plan.
The order, which could be signed this week, goes far beyond a targeted assault on Obama-era measures blocking coal leasing and throttling greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that has been discussed for weeks. Some of the changes could happen immediately; others could take years to implement.
It aims to reverse President Barack Obama’s broad approach for addressing climate change. One Obama-era policy instructed government agencies to factor climate change into formal environmental reviews, such as that for the Keystone XL pipeline. Trump’s order also will compel a reconsideration of the government’s use of a metric known as the "social cost of carbon" that reflects the potential economic damage from climate change. It was used by the Obama administration to justify a suite of regulations.
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Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a conservative, fossil fuel-oriented advocacy group, welcomed Trump’s comprehensive approach, calling it essential to undoing Obama-era climate policies that "permeated the entire administration."
"President Obama created such a labyrinth of rules and orders and regulations to cement his agenda across practically every agency," Pyle said in a phone interview. "It was designed to put into the mission of the agencies climate change first and make the rest of their mission second. This was a constraint deliberately set up by the previous administration to make it difficult to utilize coal, oil and natural gas."
Environmentalists said the president’s action will erode the international leadership the U.S. has played addressing climate change and encouraging other countries to limit the heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions that are the primary driver of the phenomenon.
The anticipated action "puts our country, our communities and our people at great risk," said Paul Getsos, national coordinator of the People’s Climate Movement, a coalition of labor, civil rights and faith-based groups. "It also sends a dangerous message to the world that the United States does not care about climate change or protecting front-line communities."
Trump’s coming order has been discussed by his staff since before he took office. Asked about when the executive order would be issued, White House spokesman Kelly Love said she had "nothing to announce at this time."
It will set in motion some discrete policy changes designed to make coal easier to extract and more enticing to burn.
For instance, the directive will compel the Environmental Protection Agency to undo the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era rule that forced states to slash the use of coal-fired electricity. Trump also is set to direct Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to reverse an Obama administration order that blocked the sale of new coal-mining rights on federal lands to producers such as Cloud Peak Energy Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp.
The measure also is set to direct regulators to rescind Obama-era regulations limiting oil industry emissions of methane, a particularly potent -- though short-lived -- greenhouse gas.
Those changes are designed to help the president fulfill a pledge to "cancel job-killing restrictions" on domestic energy and his repeated promise to put coal miners back to work. Trump’s support of coal miners helped propelled him to victory in former Democratic strongholds such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But Trump’s action is not expected to have an immediate impact on miners, nor do analysts expect it to return coal to its earlier dominance in electricity production.
Even before the Obama administration imposed the coal leasing moratorium in January 2016, coal producers had little interest in adding new federal reserves to their portfolios, amid slumping domestic demand. The U.S. government last sold a coal lease in October 2012, and existing federal leases contain at least 20 years’ worth of coal, according to Interior Department estimates.
The use of coal to generate electricity has been in decline as utilities turned to natural gas that is both cheaper and cleaner burning, in part to comply with existing environmental regulations. Still, the removal of the Clean Power Plan -- which was already put on hold by the Supreme Court -- could halt coal’s decline as a source of electricity over the next two decades, according to projections from the Energy Information Administration. More coal use also could temper projected gains for natural gas.
The ongoing litigation provides an opening for the Trump administration to undo the rule -- but only if the White House acts fast. The U.S. Court of Appeals heard arguments in the challenge last September but has not ruled on the case.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt challenged the Clean Power Plan in federal court in his previous role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, alongside more than two dozen other states, electric utilities, business groups and coal miners. An array of environmental groups, public health advocates, renewable-energy developers, large corporations and 18 other states defended the initiative.
Trump’s action will set in motion at least a year of bureaucratic work at the EPA to formally strip the Clean Power Plan from the rule books, said Jeff Holmstead, the EPA official in charge of air pollution under former President George W. Bush. Among other steps, the administration will have to justify its decision to rescind the rule, possibly by relying on the arguments advanced by Pruitt and other critics in court.
It’s not clear if EPA will write a new version of the rule, or argue that no replacement is needed or legally justified.
By contrast, the coal leasing moratorium is easier to undo. Zinke can make the change with the stroke of a pen -- the same way it was imposed just over a year ago, under an administrative order issued by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The halt was designed to allow time for a broad environmental review of the U.S. coal leasing program, including scrutiny of the climate change impacts of mining and whether companies should pay higher royalties for extracting the fossil fuel.
That analysis is still underway, and it was not immediately clear whether Trump would continue it. Abandoning the ongoing environmental analysis could make any new coal lease sales vulnerable in court.
Two of Trump’s targets have especially symbolic significance, because the Obama administration used them to elevate the role of climate change in government actions.
For instance, the social cost of carbon serves as the linchpin for many of the Obama administration’s environmental rules, from appliance efficiency requirements to limits on how much methane can leak from oil wells. Critics say the number -- now nearly $40 for every metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere -- gives artificial precision to uncertain conditions nearly 300 years in the future.
It is unclear exactly how the Trump administration will rescind or revise the social cost of carbon. Conservatives at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Energy Alliance and Heritage Foundation have offered blueprints for change that would keep it on the books while lowering the number, such as making it reflect projected climate costs solely in the U.S., rather than globally.
Trump can easily nullify guidance from Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality that climate change should be factored into government agencies’ formal environmental reviews. The guidelines were meant to influence analysis of proposed agency actions under the National Environmental Policy Act.