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Sound, fury, signatures: Trump has made little real environmental change in his 100 days

The executive orders are not accomplishments but rather promises to accomplish something, unless the courts or Congress or public pressure block the way.

What Trump’s order “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” actually does is call for reconsideration of the existing schedule of lease sales in the Arctic and other zones of the OCS.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Something didn’t sound right in last week’s headlines about President Trump lifting the ban on offshore oil drilling in the Arctic and other portions of the Outer Continental Shelf. It just didn’t seem possible that something so enormous could be accomplished with the stroke of a pen.

And, as further reading revealed, it is not possible. What Trump’s order “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” actually does is call for reconsideration of the existing schedule of lease sales in the Arctic and other zones of the OCS.

Also: a streamlining of permitting processes, a halt to designation of any new marine sanctuaries with oil and gas beneath them until both potential production and environmental impact have been assessed, a review of possible adjustments to the borders of recent sanctuaries designated by both Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and possible repeal of brand-new safety rules intended to lower the risk of blowouts like the Deepwater Horizon.

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(And a bunch of lesser stuff, with most objectives qualified by some variation on the all-purpose hedge, “to the maximum extent permitted by law.”)

Which is not to say Trump wouldn’t have simply undone the drilling ban  — along with the sanctuaries, the blowout rules and all the rest  — if he could. But he can’t, in part because the law governing OCS leasing doesn’t provide a way for areas designated as off-limits to drilling to be de-designated by executive action.

What Trump can do, and has done, in his 100-day blizzard of signing ceremonies is to issue orders and memos meant to prove he’s pro-industry and anti-regulation (which we already knew) and that he’s actually accomplishing something substantial (which he is not).

Not yet, at least, and notwithstanding headlines like “Sarah Palin: Trump ‘Makes America Great Again’ by Lifting Obama’s ‘Anti-American’ Offshore Drilling Ban.”

OK, that one’s from Breitbart, what do you expect, but you could find neutrally worded similarities at real news outlets like Alaska Public Radio (“Trump lifts ban on Arctic offshore drilling”) and even E&E News (“ OFFSHORE DRILLING: Trump lifts Obama’s ban as greens promise legal assault”).

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The 100-day grading period for new presidents would be a trifle worth ignoring if it hadn’t been made so important by pretty much every Oval Office occupant since FDR, including Trump, who as usual wants it both ways: after tweeting that the 100-day standard is “ridiculous,” he put out his accomplishments list early.

It was mostly executive decrees, long on national security, border policing and public safety issues, as well as “70 calls to 38 different world leaders”; I didn’t see spotlighted a single issue in the broad area of energy or environmental policy.

Nevertheless, in the assessment of the right-wing Washington Times, “out of all the groups in the liberal coalition, environmentalists may have had the worst of it during the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.”

From a more or less opposite viewpoint, Eric Pooley, a longtime journalist who now works for the Environmental Defense Fund, offered this assessment in Time magazine:

The Administration sounds some piercing new alarm every day, making it hard to separate the momentarily disturbing from the truly damaging. But this is essential — especially for the environment. While Trump has flip-flopped on some of his signature issues, he has been totally consistent about protections for public health, clean air and clean water: He wants to dismantle them.

To be sure, the OCS action is not the only Executive Order or Presidential Memorandum that Trump has launched against environmental measures dating back to the Nixon administration, which gave us the Environmental Protection Agency and a suite of laws to cleanse American air and water of industrial pollution poison.

By my count, four more of Trump’s 33 executive orders deal with topics of special concern to the environmentally minded: National Monument designations, energy independence and economic growth, expediting environmental review for “high priority infrastructure projects,” and the “waters of the United States rule” that clarified EPA’s authority over public drinking water sources. (I’m not counting two that deal broadly with regulatory reform or another that calls for “promoting agriculture and rural prosperity” with, you guessed it, more industrial farming.)

(There are also three of his 27 presidential memoranda, all issued Jan. 24, dealing with the Dakota Access pipeline, the Keystone XL pipeline and pipeline projects in general. As we learned during that January squall, both forms of presidential directive can be used to accomplish the same types of unilateral dictates, so long as they’re legal. The key differences are that executive orders must be published in the Federal Register, and must cite supporting legal precedent; memoranda may be made public but don’t need to be, if the president should happen to be doing something he doesn’t want to see in the headlines for a change. And they’re allowed to cite precedent, but that’s just extra work….)

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Like the OCS order, these actions mostly direct reviews and reconsiderations rather than immediate repeals or even revisions. Indeed, as David Roberts wrote the other day in Vox:

Trump didn’t scrap Obama’s fuel economy standards — he ordered a review of them. He didn’t kill the federal government’s “social cost of carbon” estimate — he ordered a review of it. He didn’t unleash any new oil and gas drilling — he ordered a review of those rules. He didn’t undo any of Obama’s national monument designations — he ordered a review of them. He didn’t open the Arctic and Atlantic Coast back up to offshore drilling — he ordered “a review of the locations available for off-shore oil and gas exploration.”

This doesn’t put Trump’s actions beyond the bounds of reasonable concern, for we have to assume that his Cabinet heads will do as he wishes  — indeed, will be instrumental in guiding him to determine what he specifically wishes, given his vague grasp of policy and impatience with detail.

And, as Roberts observes with typical concision, the results will probably be damaging to some degree:

Eventually, agencies will lumber into action; rules will be weakened, protections undone. But that will be a long, fraught process, beset at every step by resistance — from agency employees, civil society, and courts. It is impossible to say in advance where the reviews initiated by these EOs will end up. But it is rather odd to tout them as “accomplishments” of Trump’s first 100 days. They aren’t accomplishments; they are promises to eventually accomplish things.

My point today: Though the Trump rollback campaign has garnered some generous headlines, the real battles are still ahead — and if they continue to engage Americans who care about environment in anything like the numbers we just saw at the climate march in Washington over the weekend, and these Americans stay on the case, the outcomes are less than certain.

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Consider this interesting and optimistic parallel drawn by Cally Carswell in Scientific American, reminding us of George W. Bush’s effort to undo a prominent Bill Clinton initiative  — but one that surely had less passionate support than many of Trump’s targets today:

On January 5, 2001, the Clinton administration finalized a new policy called the Roadless Rule, which put 58 million acres of national forest lands off limits to mining, logging, drilling and road-building. Industry and many states balked at the restrictions, environmentalists cheered, and everyone wondered: Would the protections survive? George W. Bush, a former oilman whose campaign promises included opening Arctic lands to drilling, would take office just 15 days later.

Donald Trump’s dark-horse finish in the presidential race last month is raising similar concerns: Is Barack Obama’s environmental legacy doomed? Trump hasn’t articulated a detailed environmental agenda, but what he has said has the fossil fuel industry celebrating and environmentalists girding for battle. And it’s given the Roadless Rule saga new resonance. When Bush took office, he delayed implementation of the rule and lengthy court battles ensued. But after more than a decade of litigation, the rule largely held up. It’s not always easy for a new administration to undo the work of the last.