Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trump's anti-environment directive may not be quite as disastrous as it appears

As Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt's new (and now misnamed) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) start on the main thrust of their long-promised destabilization of the basis of America's environmental regulations, just what does his Energy Independence Executive Order on environmental regulation actually take aim at, and, given how impractical and unsuccessful many of his previous directives have been, how successful might this one be?
  • Roll back President Obama's Clear Power Plan - Obama's signature climate change policy was aimed at cutting emissions from US power plants to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. The policy has not yet come into force as the Washington DC Circuit Court is still considering various legal challenges to the drafting of the plan, the emissions targets it sets for the individual states, and whether it contravenes the 10th Amendment by "forcing" states to make cuts. Trump, nevertheless, wants to completely rewrite (and water down) the provisions of the plan, mainly to placate the coal lobby. This could take a long time, and it will still need to go through the court process, just as Obama's plan did, and any rewrite can expect to face strong legal challenges from environmental groups.
  • Reconsider carbon standards for new power plants - The EPA under President Obama also set stringent CO2 standards for the building of new power stations, standards that effectively make new coal power plants all but impossible without expensive carbon capture and sequestration measures (which make an already rocky economic case into a prohibitive one). Trump and Pruitt will not be able to avoid carbon standards entirely, but they will look to water them down, again in (rather forlorn) hope of making coal cost-effective again.
  • Reconsider regulations on methane emissions - Obama and the EPA's standards changes also looked to reduce emissions of methane (a major greenhouse gas) from oil and gas operations to 40% below 2012 levels by 2025. Trump et al will try to reduce that commitment, although they will have to justify any changes through the courts.
  • Reduce the estimate of the "social cost of carbon" - Under President Obama, a dozen or so federal agencies established a social cost, or effective price, of carbon, based on scientific modeling. In 2009, it set this cost at $36 a tonne, a value to be used in setting efficiency standards for appliances, etc, based on cost-benefit analyses. Mr. Trump will try to reduce this in any way possible, although once again he will face significant court challenges (and many federal agencies believe that it should actually be significantly higher).
  • Lift the moratorium on federal coal leasing - The Department of the Interior under President Obama stopped the government from leasing out federal lands with coal reserves buried below for commercial development until the program had been reviewed and evaluated. Trump wants to lift the moratorium, although it is far from clear that mining companies will actually be interested in such leases anyway, given the adverse economics of coal right now.
  • Do away with climate change guidance for federal NEPA reviews - Under President Obama, the Council on Environmental Quality issued guidelines on how federal agencies should incorporate climate implications into their National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews. Trump's executive order will repeal the need to follow these guidelines and generally make the whole process much easier, although federal agencies will still need to carry out the environmental reviews, and the lack of guidance may in fact lead to more litigation, not less.
  • Rescind other Obama executive orders on climate change - These include the Climate Action Plan (laying out the country's overall goals on climate change), and orders to urge federal agencies to reduce their CO2 output, and to help communities reduce their own individual carbon footprint. There seems to be little to stop Trump from just cancelling these.
  • Instruct federal agencies to review any rules that might inhibit the development of domestic energy production from any source - Trump's justification for this is that it will promote "energy independence", but the agencies will be merely instructed to report their findings to the White House, and it is not clear what will happen then (although the Trump administration's favour of the coal, oil and gas industries is well known).
This is a large and potentially important executive order, although as noted above, the various changes are by no means slam dunks, and it is not even certain that Mr. Trump's own party will accept all of the changes he is proposing. Nor is it likely to affect the momentum towards renewable energy and carbon-responsible decision-making that has taken hold among American utilities, states and businesses. One recent study by the Rhodium Group suggests that, even if Trump's executive order were to be adopted wholesale, emissions may remain stable or even decrease slightly, thanks to market forces and other policies that Trump cannot affect. Of course, this would be nothing like the progress that would have been made under Obama's Climate Action Plan. But hopefully this will only be, at worst, a four year hiatus anyway.
Leaders throughout the world have expressed their disappointment with Trump's trajectory on climate change, and on the environment in general, with most seeing this latest directive as a major mis-step. With somebody's idea of a flair for the dramatic, Trump signed the order surrounded by a gaggle of photogenic coal miners, repeating his promise to "put our miners back to work". But industry experts say that ship has already sailed, and the coal industry is unlikely ever to be the powerhouse it once was. As the Washington Post points out, there are less than 70,000 workers in the coal industry today, including less than 16,000 of what might actually be called coal-miners (extraction workers or helpers, mining machine operators or earth drillers), although the strength of their lobby is grossly outsized compared to their employment statistics.
One thing the executive order has done, perhaps predictably, is to set business groups and environmental campaigners at each others' throats once again. Supporters say it will create thousands of new jobs in the coal, oil and gas industries; opponents say it will only create more jobs in the legal profession, as challenge after challenge are brought forward. Environmentalists should be wary of just jamming things up in the courts indefinitely, though, because that is partly what Trump wants - inaction on climate change. And the status quo will not get the USA to anywhere near its Paris climate deal commitments - which is also playing into Trump's hands.

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