Trump's Executive Order: More Fossil Fuels, Regardless of Climate Change

President Trump's latest decree aims to undo President Obama's climate policies across federal agencies, including the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

President Donald Trump, surrounded by coal miners, signs his administration's executive order on energy that aims to unleash fossil fuel development by undoing the Obama administration's climate change policies. Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

This story was updated at 3.30 pm ET on March 29 to incorporate the Department of Interior's orders to end the coal leasing moratorium.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday calling on every federal agency to loosen the regulatory reins on fossil fuel industries, the most significant declaration of the administration's intent to retreat from action on climate change.

Trump directed all departments to identify and target for elimination any rules that restrict U.S. production of energy, and he set guidance to make it more difficult to put future regulations in place on the coal, oil and natural gas industries.

The White House sought to frame the Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth as an "all-of-the-above" energy policy. "We're looking at deposits of coal, looking at nuclear, looking at renewables, all of it," said a senior administration official in a briefing. But the primary aim is clearly to unleash fossil fuel development by undoing the policies that President Barack Obama put in place to curb the nation's carbon emissions.

Trump's executive order steered clear of whether the U.S. will remain a party to the Paris climate agreement. The White House has not yet made a decision, the official said. But gutting climate policies as the executive order seeks to do would make the U.S. obligations under the treaty virtually impossible to meet. It would also put in jeopardy the landmark agreement's goal of keeping the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.

Trump specifically ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to initiate a review of the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration's signature climate initiative to slash carbon pollution from coal plants. The process of repealing that regulation, which is currently under a stay by the Supreme Court, could take years. But even as that battle wends its way through the process, Trump's order will have a potentially sweeping impact by immediately rescinding a series of Obama executive orders that embedded consideration of climate change into all major decisions by the federal government.

"Those orders have already kind of run their course," said the administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing the order before its formal release. "They don't reflect the president's priorities when it comes to dealing with climate change. We want to do it with our own policy, in our own fashion."

That policy, in essence, is to produce more energy, regardless of carbon emissions. "No. 1, you've got to make sure you've got a strong economy," the official said. "A strong economy is the best way to protect the environment. Natural gas is important. Coal is important. Nuclear is important."

The executive order did not address the Environmental Protection Agency's endangerment finding—the Obama administration's declaration in 2009 that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases constitute a threat to ecosystems and public health. That finding, which a federal appeals court in 2012 said was "unambiguously correct," is the legal underpinning of the EPA acting to address climate change under the Clean Air Act. The senior White House official expressed a view, not widely shared, that the endangerment finding only applied to vehicle regulations and did not give the EPA an obligation to address carbon emissions from power plants under a different section of the law. (Supreme Court rulings in 2011 and 2014 further cemented EPA's authority to use the Clean Air Act to address power plant pollution.)

Trump signed the order with great fanfare, in front of a group of about a dozen coal miners, at the EPA headquarters, and flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his secretaries of energy and interior.

"This is the start of a new era in American energy production and job creation," Trump said. "We will eliminate federal overreach, restore economic freedom and allow workers and companies to play on a level playing field for the first time in a long time, a long time.

"We're going to have clean coal, really clean coal."

Trump and his cabinet members made no mention of climate change as they made their remarks, nor did they talk about nuclear energy or renewables, as the White House official did the previous day in briefing reporters on the planned order. Instead, they framed the order as a job-creating, economic stimulus measure, turning repeatedly to the coal miners behind them on stage as they extolled its benefits. "You know what this says?" Trump asked them. "This says you're going back to work."

The repeal of U.S. climate policy efforts is sure to fire up environmental activists and scientists who gathered in protest outside EPA headquarters and were planning a rally in front of the White House later in the day. They are also organizing two significant marches on Washington, D.C. in late April.

Activists hope the People's Climate March set for April 29 recreates their success in bringing 400,000 people into the streets of New York during the United Nations General Assembly in 2014. Scientists are also organizing a March for Science on April 22, which is Earth Day.

"This is an all-out assault on the protections we need to avert climate catastrophe," said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a senseless betrayal of our national interests. And it's a short-sighted attempt to undermine American clean energy leadership."

Still, the order did not go far enough to please some of Trump's supporters, including Myron Ebell, of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute and Trump's EPA transition leader, who supports a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord and action to rescind the endangerment finding. "It is important to understand that all these policies are closely connected and that striking down most but not all of them will not be sufficient to undo the damage done by President Obama's energy-rationing policies," Ebell said.

The Trump order eliminates guidance that Obama's Council on Environmental Quality issued last August on how agencies should incorporate climate considerations into the environmental reviews they are required to conduct on all major federal actions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA.) The State Department's NEPA review of the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, considered the project's impact on greenhouse gases. The analysis became the basis of Obama's decision to kill the project that would move Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in the United States. (Trump revived the Keystone XL by granting the project a presidential permit last week.)

But Trump could face legal challenges if agencies begin producing NEPA reviews without taking climate change into account. Courts have invalidated rules for failure to consider it as part of an environmental review, legal experts said.

Jessica Wentz, associate director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, believes the only way federal agencies could legally ignore climate change would be for Congress to rewrite the 1969 NEPA law. "While they weren't explicitly thinking about climate change, it is broadly worded and talks of reserving resources for future generations," she said. "It makes perfect sense to apply it to the biggest environmental threat to the planet now."

Trump's order also directs a reconsideration of the government's use of the "social cost of carbon," a measurement that puts a price on the future damage society will pay for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted. Federal agencies are required by law to weigh the costs and benefits of most regulations, and the social cost of carbon has become an important tool for tallying the risks of business as usual on global warming. Yale environmental economist William Nordhaus recently wrote that it was "the most important single economic concept in the economics of climate change."

The executive order did not simply scrap the social-cost calculations because the White House likely realized such a blunt approach would not pass legal muster. A federal appeals court in 2007 threw out Bush administration fuel economy standards for SUVs for failure to account for the cost of greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, the White House ordered agencies to use calculation methods developed by its budget office 14 years ago for decisions not involving greenhouse gas emissions. The result will be a new metric for the social damage costs that sets the number far lower.

"This gets down to a question of whether we value the here and now and not what happens to future generations," said Chris Forest, an atmospheric scientist at Pennsylvania State University.

Trump's order also  requires a review of a 2015 EPA regulation for new fossil fuel power plants to be built with carbon-control technologies. (The Clean Power Plan applies to existing power plants.) The new measure also demands review of an EPA regulation finalized last May to monitor and control methane leaks at new oil and gas facilities.

As expected, the new order lifted the moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal lands that Obama put in place a year ago. Obama had directed the Interior Department to determine whether to charge companies higher leasing and royalty fees for mining public lands coal, in part to reflect the climate costs associated with emissions from the coal. Lifting the moratorium is expected to have little immediate impact, because production has continued on current federal leases, which already can provide ample coal for decades. And due to the slump in demand for coal, production in Wyoming and Montana, where most of those leases would be sold, fell 18 percent in 2016. Cheap natural gas and renewable energy have beaten back coal's share of U.S. electricity generation, a trend that Trump will find it difficult to reverse.

On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed the paperwork: one order to overturn the leasing moratorium and to end a broad environmental impact assessment, and another to reexamine climate change guidance and policies across the agency.

He also chartered a new panel to advise him on how much companies should pay for the public land coal reserves they mine and sell.

Many Congressional Republicans and industry groups praised Trump's executive order.

"For eight years President Obama waged an all-out war on fossil fuels and pushed a relentless agenda to regulate carbon dioxide," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of Congress' leading opponents of climate action. "This slowed our economy drastically and damaged our national security by limiting our ability to use affordable, domestically sourced energy."

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power-generating companies, said the order will help Trump in his oft-stated goal of spurring pipelines, transmission projects, and other energy infrastructure."It is possible to have an effective climate change policy based more on market principles than command and control regulations," Segal said.

The order set off criticism from Democrats and environmental advocates, who said that the Trump administration would set back progress on clean air and water, while failing to address the woes of workers who have been hurt by the demise of the coal industry. While market forces and increasing automation will continue to make mining jobs scarce, the Trump administration's policy would ensure those communities lose out on the opportunities that clean energy technologies could provide, they said.

"The administration's 'Back to the Future' environmental policy might be funny if it were a movie, but it's real life," said Gina McCarthy, who shepherded the Clean Power Plan as Obama's EPA administrator. "They want us to travel back to when smokestacks damaged our health and polluted our air, instead of taking every opportunity to support clean jobs of the future.  This is not just dangerous; it's embarrassing to us and our businesses on a global scale to be dismissing opportunities for new technologies, economic growth, and U.S. leadership."

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