Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Through a series of devastating executive orders, memoranda and decisions, the Trump administration has taken aim at the environment and has sought to erase President Obama’s signature achievements related to climate and energy. But Trump is only a man sitting at a desk signing pieces of paper. Powerful resistance taking many forms threatens to unravel the President’s anti-environmental agenda, sending even his most well-laid plans awry. Trump has given us plenty of reasons to feel downtrodden, so here is some much-needed optimism to remind you that the war on the environment is far from over.
Dismantling Obama’s Climate Legacy
What Trump did: In his most brazen effort to undercut Obama-era climate policy, President Trump paraded a group of coal miners and coal executives into the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to witness the signing of an executive order that directed the EPA to begin rolling back the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The CPP would have slashed carbon-dioxide emissions by forcing states to shutter coal-fired power plants. In the same executive order, Trump lifted a moratorium on federal coal leasing; repealed rules designed to curb methane emissions during fossil-fuel extraction; and directed the government to ignore climate change and the social cost of carbon when making policy decisions.
Why there’s hope: While Republicans continue to blame the CPP for the coal industry’s demise, the regulations are still tied up in court and haven’t gone into effect. Even so, 85 percent of states are on track to meet targets laid out in the plan. The fact of the matter is automation and market forces — namely competition from cheap natural gas and renewable energy — are driving coal miners out of work. Even coal executives admit that Trump’s order is unlikely to create jobs or revive the industry. On top of all that, environmental groups and a coalition of environmentally-friendly states and cities have vowed to sue the Trump administration, likely leading to a lengthy legal battle that could exceed Trump’s time in office. And most importantly, the President decided not to challenge the Endangerment Finding, the EPA’s decision to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The Paris Agreement, which Trump has threatened to “cancel,” was left untouched as well.
Declining to Ban Chlorpyrifos
What Trump did: Originally developed as a chemical weapon prior to World War II, chlorpyrifos is a common pesticide that the Obama administration tried to ban after the EPA determined it can interfere with brain development in fetuses, infants and children. Overruling the findings of his own agency, administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the EPA would not ban the toxic chemical. “By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results,” Pruitt said, undercutting the work of EPA scientists by painting it as politically motivated hogwash.
Why there’s hope: Environmental groups, like Earthjustice, will challenge the decision in court, where the science has a much better chance of being recognized. And even if those challenges fail, chlorpyrifos use has been falling over the past decade. California, which accounts for 25 percent of all chlorpyrifos used in the U.S., already heavily regulates the chemical. Pruitt’s reversal is unlikely to result in increased use. Senator Tom Carpenter has also publicly called out Pruitt for failing to justify his decision with science.
Slashing Climate & Science Budgets
What Trump did: In presenting a budget proposal that slashed funding to the EPA by 31 percent, President Trump made it clear that protecting the environment and mitigating the effects of climate change have no place on his agenda. In addition to the massive cuts at the EPA — which could lose a fifth of its workforce — Trump also took aim at climate change programs at the State Department, NASA, NOAA and the Interior Department. “I think the president was fairly straightforward on that: We’re not spending money on that anymore,” White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said, confirming the administration’s position on climate research. The proposal amounted to no less than a war on science while calling for a $54 billion increase in military spending.
Why there’s hope: Trump gets to propose a budget, but Congress must approve it. Democrats have vowed to resist. Sen. Brian Schatz said Trump’s budget is “radical, it’s extreme and we will fight it. And of course a budget is a declaration of political objectives and not a binding document, so the committees will have their way with it, and I know we’ll have a fight.” Even Republicans are balking at the severity of cuts to the EPA and other agencies. The budget Congress ends up passing and the budget Trump proposed will look nothing alike.
Reviewing Obama-Era Fuel-Efficiency Standards
What Trump did: Speaking in front of automakers in Detroit, the President announced that the EPA would reopen its review into fuel-efficiency standards, which may not be released until 2018. “The assault on the American auto industry is over,” Trump declared during his speech. Previously, Obama’s EPA had finalized targets requiring automakers to double fuel economy in new vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Alongside the Clean Power Plan, this would have been the second pillar of America’s strategy to cut emissions as outlined in the Paris Agreement. But auto industry executives met with Trump and complained about the standards, claiming the technology needed to achieve them would raise vehicle prices, slash sales and lead to significant layoffs. So here we are.
Why there’s hope: Governor Jerry Brown has promised California will sue, as will New York. The Golden State already followed through by voting to uphold stringent emissions standards, setting up a legal showdown with the Trump administration. Automakers’ hands are tied, too, because they make investments in materials and technology years in advance — many are likely committed to the Obama-era standards. Additionally, vehicles are manufactured to be sold all over the world, including markets with higher standards than in the U.S. Some pundits have even suggested that the auto industry will use the likely cutbacks to fuel-efficiency standards to add more trucks to their fleet, not abandon cleaner cars. And for their part, many auto-industry executives have affirmed their commitment to hybrid, electric and high-efficiency vehicles. “No matter what happens in the U.S., we will not change any of our plans for electrified vehicles and more efficient vehicles,” Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said in the days leading up to Trump’s announcement.
Rolling Back the Waters of the U.S. Rule
What Trump did: Water comes together with other water — that’s the thinking behind the Obama administration’s 2014 Waters of the U.S. Rule (also called the Clean Water Rule). The regulation, which the EPA based on a 400-page report that referenced 1,200 peer-reviewed studies, protects (under the Clean Water Act) tributaries, seasonal waterways and wetlands that impact downstream waters. Even though many local farming communities were OK with the rule — which doesn’t apply to most farm ditches and does not cover many farm-related activities — Big Agriculture was not pleased. Neither was the EPA’s current chief, Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency (yes, the same agency he now leads) over the rule in 2015. President Trump, always happy to kowtow to big industry, signed an executive order directing Pruitt and the EPA to begin the legal process of unraveling and rewriting the regulation.
Why there’s hope: That process is complicated and Pruitt’s task is daunting, though he’ll no doubt dive in with vigor. But Trump’s directive is more a symbol than anything else. “The executive order has no legal significance at all,” Richard L. Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University, told the New York Times. “It’s like the president calling Scott Pruitt and telling him to start the legal proceedings. It does the same thing as a phone call or a tweet. It just signals that the president wants it to happen.” Even officials in the Trump Administration admit the process of undoing, rewriting and approving the new rule could take years. And assuming that process can be completed before a more environmentally-friendly administration takes office, there will be a bevy of lawsuits challenging Pruitt’s work. Even if the Trump administration can get this done — and that’s a big “if” — the Supreme Court is likely to have the final say.
Reviving Contentious Pipeline Projects
What Trump did: Days after taking office, Trump leaped with glee into the controversy swirling around the proposed Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. The president signed a pair of memoranda paving the way for revival and completion of both projects. Previously, the Obama administration had rejected the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015, and stalled the Dakota Access pipeline by denying the project’s company, Energy Transfer Partners, the final permit needed to drill under Lake Oahe — a reservoir on the Missouri River that provides drinking and sacred water to local Native American tribes. The Trump administration recently granted TransCanada the final permit needed to proceed with construction of the Keystone XL project. “Today we begin to make things right,” the President said, continuing his obsessive assault on Obama-era policy.
Why there’s hope: With oil flowing under Lake Oahe, it’s difficult to be optimistic, at least as far as the Dakota Access Pipeline is concerned. Still, hope abounds. Tribes are vowing to continue the legal battle, challenging the project on environmental and cultural grounds. If they win, the pipeline could be shut down. And in Iowa, the Sierra Club and local landowners are appealing a lawsuit to the state’s Supreme Court, challenging the use of eminent domain to seize land for the project. Prospects for resisting the Keystone XL pipeline are looking even better. A coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, have filed a lawsuit claiming the federal permit was issued without proper environmental review. Nebraska, one of the states the proposed pipeline will cross, also has to approve the project based on whether it will be in the best interest of its citizens. The divestiture movement is surging, with major cities like Seattle pulling billions of dollars out of banks backing the pipelines. And on a grander scale, the resistance to both projects has helped create a blueprint for demonstration and forced the government to acknowledge and consult Native Americans, which could impact the process and feasibility of future pipelines.
There are plenty of reasons to keep fighting. Don’t give up yet. In the words of Shawshank Redemption‘s Andy Dufresne: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”