The Trump administration will release an executive order on “Energy Independence” on Tuesday that marks a 180-degree reversal of President Obama’s policies on energy, climate change, and public lands, according to a briefing provided by a senior White House official.
Described as an “America First” energy policy, the new executive order shifts the government’s balance to favor the fossil-fuel industry over environmental protection.
First, the order will immediately rescind a number of Obama administration orders, guidances, and other documents, while freezing Obama-era regulations in order to conduct new reviews. In particular, all executive orders on climate change will be formally rescinded. They “have run their course,” said the official, and “simply don’t reflect president’s priorities… We are taking a different path.”
According to the document:
• The White House Center for Environmental Quality’s guidance that all agencies take climate change into account when making policy will be rescinded.
• The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever national standards for carbon pollution from power plants, will be frozen, pending a new review.
• The EPA’s determination of the “social cost of carbon,” i.e., the value of a ton of carbon not put into the atmosphere, will be rescinded. The Office of Management and Budget will set the value instead.
• The Department of the Interior’s moratorium on new coal mining on public land will be rescinded.
• President Obama’s 2013 memorandum calling for a climate action plan will be rescinded.
• President Obama’s 2015 memorandum on climate mitigation efforts, to be conducted by multiple departments, will be rescinded.
• Regulation of fracking will be reviewed.
• Regulation of methane emissions at oil and gas production sites will be reviewed.
All these and other reversals are but the first part of the executive order’s ambit. The second part is even more devastating for environmental concerns: to set a new, national policy on “energy independence”—in other words, energy production.
Over the next 180 days, all agencies will be instructed to identify, and slate for repeal, “any rules that serve as obstacles or impediments to domestic energy production.” Those will range from environmental laws that protect caribou at the expense of oil drilling in Alaska, to safety regulations that raise the cost of fracking.
Indeed, the order will call for reviewing any policies that “burden” energy production, including incidental ones like water regulations, limitations on public land use, housing rules regarding the siting of fracking and other fossil-fuel extraction, and even tax policies. The whole point of a six-month-long, government-wide review is explicitly to change all relevant government actions to benefit energy production.
How best to understand this broad executive order?
First, this should not be a surprise. Trump campaigned against the scientific consensus on climate change and against “burdensome” environmental regulations. He’s put climate skeptics in charge of the EPA and in the White House. The extent of the action may be unprecedented, but anyone who is surprised by these moves has not been paying attention.
Second, this is more Republicanism than Trumpism. Most likely, Jeb Bush would’ve made many of the same changes. There are some distinctively Trumpist elements to it—pandering to coal miners (“the president made a pledge to the coal industry to do whatever he can to help those workers,” the official said), calling the policy “America First.” But those are more rhetorical than substantive. In fact, most of these changes are the ones that mainstream Republicans have been demanding for years. This order is as much Reince Priebus as Steve Bannon.
Indeed, the only reason that Trump can so swiftly roll back eight years of Obama administration policy is that the Republican-dominated Congress refused to act on climate change. That left it to the Executive Branch to do the heavy lifting with regulations, executive orders, and other rules—all of which can be overturned by the next administration, as we are now seeing.
Finally, the White House official repeatedly expressed the president’s desire to “get EPA back to its core mission” of protecting clean air and clean water. That spells bad news for everything else the EPA does: scientific research, climate-change prevention, promotion of alternative fuels, protecting against environmental injustice, and so on.
There were a couple of interesting developments, however.
First, the Trump administration did not formally abandon the Paris Agreement on climate change, stating that it was “still under discussion.” While this might offer a glimmer of hope to environmentalists, more likely it’s simply a tactical move. Why formally withdraw from an international accord when you can simply ignore it and miss its targets? Better to sin and ask forgiveness later than to cause a ruckus now.
Second, the administration has more finely tuned its rhetoric regarding climate change. At the briefing, journalists were told that, in fact, the president does believe in man-made climate change. Indeed, when pressed, even the official, who as recently as four months ago was a lobbyist for fossil-fuel companies, admitted that he, too, believed in man-made climate change.
“Yep, sure, I do,” he said (after first saying it’s “not relevant what I think”). “The issue is to what extent, and how serious, and the magnitude of it, and a lot of other questions that flow from that.”
That is a more nuanced view than outright climate denial, or even climate skepticism. You might call it “climate meh.” As in: OK, climate change is happening, but it’s probably not such a big deal. In the words of Whitney Houston, it’s not right, but it’s OK.
That view still runs directly counter to the entirety of the scientific community’s estimates, which range from bad to catastrophic. But it is a brilliant political shift. Instead of baldly denying the science (and the weather, for that matter), the administration now invites us into the weeds of how much, how bad, how complex… how dull.
The Whitney Houston view also makes fighting climate change a matter of balancing. “It’s an issue that deserves attention,” said the official, “but the president has been very clear that we’re not going to pursue climate or environmental policies that put the U.S. economy at risk.”
See how that works—it’s not right, but it’s OK, and so we can balance it out against these other things. (Several journalists pointed out that climate change will be economically devastating, as coastal cities must protect against being inundated, extreme weather events increase in frequency, and crop belts shift northward—but the official played dumb. “I’d like the see the research,” he said.)
What, finally, is an “America First energy policy”? Per the executive order, it’s to “remove any obstacles so we can produce energy.” But of course, that’s really a fossil-fuel-industry first energy policy. Everything else just got sent to the back of the line.