Yes, Trump is bad for the environment — but let’s not overestimate what he’s done

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Yes, it is appalling from a policy standpoint to see Trump’s historic contraction of national monument boundaries in Utah, but the environmental significance of these moves will be determined by industry’s production decisions.

First of two parts

As the anniversary of President Donald Trump’s inauguration approached, environmental organizations and media outlets went into overdrive recounting the regressive awfulness of his administration’s first year: protections removed, regulations rolled back, national monuments downsized, international agreements abandoned.

Which is understandable. This president promised voters (and, more important, the Republicans’ corporate clientele) a pro-business dismantling of the administrative state. He wants everyone to think he and his appointees are delivering incredibly and hugely on this, especially at the nexus of industry and environment.

But let’s not give them more credit than they deserve, shall we?

It is true that Scott Pruitt at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Ryan Zinke at Interior have been doing their work with the steady zeal of vandals bent on breaking stuff; Pruitt’s hollowing out of EPA’s programming and professional staff will probably stand as the year’s single most destructive achievement. The president, meanwhile, has remained focused on signing his orders and proclamations with a spiky flourish, then exaggerating both their significance and his own contributions.

Still, given the complexity of environmental governance, it is disappointing how little sharp-eyed analysis this flood of bad, or at least bad-sounding, rollbacks is getting.

How much actual change has been accomplished? How much genuine harm is being done? How much credit will Trump really be able to claim in the next campaign?

These are difficult questions to answer with precision, but in general I think the answer to all is: way less than the president and his claque want the American electorate, and particularly the pro-Trump electorate, to believe.

And without minimizing this administration’s intentions, I think it’s important to avoid overestimating its impact. That will only gratify and motivate the base of voters who really think Trump is right on the need for a sweeping rollback of environmental protection, and are sufficiently deluded to believe that any president — let alone a president as disengaged and lazy as this one — can deliver it. 

***

Almost everybody who has been paying attention grasps, I would guess, that Trump has not in fact pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accords, his pledges and bleats and tweets notwithstanding. No actual exit is possible until 2020.

Trump continues to suggest that the United States might not withdraw but instead seek a better deal, which also isn’t possible (international treatymaking being different from, say, real-estate development, where unscrupulous players have been known to treat final agreements as starting points for the next negotiation).

Some may also grasp that while the president routinely claims to have repealed the Clean Power Plan limiting carbon emissions from fossil-fueled power plants, such a step is far beyond his powers, or Pruitt’s. What Trump actually did last March was instruct EPA to re-evaluate the rule.

We all understood that the intended outcome of that evaluation was predetermined, and in October Pruitt confirmed his plan to end the program without replacing it. Only that, too, is impossible because of various federal laws and court rulings, and last month Pruitt said the agency will be coming up with a new version.

The replacement process will of course be subject to various requirements and limitations, some established by Congress and others by the courts, and will take a long time, and the prospect of essentially undoing the old plan seems to be in serious doubt.  So is the upshot even if it were achieved.

For a solid discussion of this policy landscape I refer you to Charles C. Mann’s Vanity Fair piece from last March, “How Trump’s Environmental Policy Is a Total Joke, Explained,” which as you might guess from the headline is not at all ponderous. It is serious, though, and concludes:

But even if Pruitt somehow shepherds this process through, it is unclear whether eliminating the Clean Power Plan will make any difference. The bill’s goal was to reduce power-plant carbon emissions by 32 percent from their 2005 levels by 2030. Emissions have already been reduced by 24 percent, and will almost certainly hit the 32 percent target in the next couple of years, well ahead of schedule.

Despite the president’s insistence that fossil fuels have been unfairly demonized, and that their producers and industrial consumers deserve relief, much of the progress on emissions is coming from market-driven shifts away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables.

(Also worth remembering: Barack Obama was a coal-state senator and advocate of an “all of the above” energy policy that invested in the fiction of “clean coal,” trumpeted the surge in U.S. energy production from public lands, and expanded as well as contracted access to those lands for oil, gas and coal production.)

Yes, it is appalling from a policy standpoint to see Trump’s historic contraction of national monument boundaries in Utah, the moves to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve, the lifting of a three-year moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands, the re-opening of Arctic and Atlantic Ocean habitats and portions of the outer continental shelf to drilling.

But, ultimately, the environmental significance of these moves will be determined by industry’s production decisions, and so it remains unclear whether they will stand as major tragedies or minor distractions.

***

Speaking of the Arctic refuge, it was really Congress and not Trump that wrought this change, through a provision pasted into the tax bill. (Remember, too, that refuge protections have been under steady assault in Congress by most Republicans and some Democrats from the beginning, surviving at times only because of filibuster or veto — and, like a lot of the past year’s anti-environmental moves, can be reversed by Congress). 

Similarly, a significant portion of the past year’s environmental rollbacks are frequently misattributed to the White House when in fact they were the work of congressional Republicans making unprecedented use of a formerly obscure law that gives the House and Senate a time-limited opportunity to repeal recent administrative actions.

Used successfully only once in the preceding two decades years of its existence, the Congressional Review Act was employed 15 times last year to undo actions of the Obama administration, three of them environmental rollbacks. The leading example would be repeal of the so-called Stream Protection Rule, a response to coal mining by “mountaintop removal” that was written in George W. Bush’s administration and rewritten during Obama’s under court order.

These repeals are routinely miscredited to Trump’s initiative, not that the president has hurried to correct the impression that he did more than add his signature.

In the case of the coal repeal, according to the Register-Herald of Beckley, West Virginia, the president said, “I am continuing to keep my promise to the American people to get rid of wasteful regulations that do absolutely nothing but slow down the economy, hamstring companies and push jobs to other countries.” But according to Forbes, the move isn’t likely to matter much:

 [U]ndoing this law won’t change the industry’s fate. That’s because the biggest coal fired utilities — American Electric Power, Southern Co. and Duke Energy — are ditching their older coal plants and they are not building new ones. Instead, they are switching to natural gas and renewables. Nationally, 300 coal plants have been shuttered since 2008 and more of them are scheduled to close.

***

Advocacy websites cataloging the horrors of this administration’s environmental rollbacks abound — the National Resource Defense Council’s Trump Watch, for a leading example — and no wonder: Tracking a year of misguided giveaways to industry interests is a fine tool for fundraising and perhaps galvanizing voters.

Alas, no similar compendium exists that reliably sorts the substantive from the trivial, the faits accomplis from the probabilities, the possibilities and the feints. One of the better efforts I found was compiled by New York Times reporters and published under the headline, “60 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump.”

Of the 60, the Times scores 29 as done deals, with 24 in progress and 7 in limbo (and some of the 29 cited as accomplished are facing court challenges or other hurdles).

You can judge for yourself, but my reading is that the aggregate impact of the 29 cited accomplishments (like canceling bans on the insecticide chlorpyrifos, lead ammunition on federal lands, sales of plastic bottles of water in national parks) is rather smaller than that of the 31 yet undone (like relaxing fuel-economy standards on cars, and a long list of breaks on air and water pollution for power and sewage-treatment plants).

Trump has been dealt a few defeats, too, including the Senate’s successful defense of a rule requiring energy companies to control methane releases on federal and Indian lands.

And while the administration has been busily removing or softening references to climate change throughout agency websites, it has not — as was widely feared — taken down the actual climate data, a watchdog group concluded this month.

Tomorrow: How the rollbacks are prompting pushback.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Sandra Marks on 01/24/2018 - 10:20 am.

    Wait out this flunky administration…

    and save/lock up the data. Minnesota–continue your aggressive pursuit of clean energy.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/24/2018 - 11:31 am.

    We’re supposed to be calmed by a “he hasn’t done it YET”?

    In other words, Trump’s appointees and the Republican Congress are pushing hard to remove any and all environmental protections, and Ron wants us to be reassured by the facts that there are legal hurdles they must jump before implementing their plans, and that it all depends on what industry decides to do (and, under more environmentally-friendly regulations that Trump’s folks are removing, industry ths far was headed in the right direction)?

    Nice try. But I am not reassured.

  3. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 01/24/2018 - 12:14 pm.

    Well, yeah my 2 yr old destroyed your home’s interior…

    but hey the walls are still standing!

    The Trump admin is hell-bent on destruction in every area, every single day.
    They want no regulations. They care not one iota about the water, air, health of the people or natural habitats of our remaining wildlife. They have no desire to do anything cleanly or greenly.

    Or legally.

    They are intent on moving the country back to the 50s in some areas, and the 20s in others.
    They are big on patriarchy and the old glory days of the wealthy ruling.

    They have no fresh ideas. They push only for constant regression.
    They want a few to have their thumb on the rest of us always.
    To hell with our 241 yr old democracy.

    I’m not playing.

  4. Submitted by William DePaulo on 01/24/2018 - 01:36 pm.

    DAMAGE TO HEALTH FROM MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL

    Mr. Meador quotes Forbes to the effect that repeal of the Stream Protection Rule won’t hurt the coal industry because they are already doomed by the impact of cheap natural gas and renewables and are in any event scheduled for closure. The impact of natural gas discoveries in the last decade have reduced the price of natural gas from a high of $13.50 in the 2008 period, to $2.50 +/- now, a big decline for sure. And the impact on coal’s share of the market for electric generation was sizable also. Basically, coal went from a massive 55% share of the national market for electric generation to its current 30-33% share, depending on seasonal fluctuations. And natural gas’s share of the market has increased markedly also, just up to the 30% level, such that it trades positions, month to month, with coal as either the number 1 or number 2 share holder.

    All of this is irrelevant to the citizens of West Virginia where mountaintop removal occurs and where, despite significant increases in natural gas and renewables, coal still retains 95% of the market for electric generation.

    So what, you may ask. Well, for the people who live in the fallout area of both mountaintop removal coal mining and coal-fired electric generation plants (and that all 1.8 million residents of W. Va.), it is very significant health wise.

    Fully two dozen peer-reviewed medical research studies, conducted over the last decade and a half, document the following in statistically significant quantities, all as a consequence of mtr and coal-fired electric generation: increased birth defects, decreased birth weight, diminished educational attainment, increased cardiac and pulmonary disease, increased cancer, and very significantly diminished life expectancy, on the order of 18 years.

    What has the coal industry said in response to these peer-reviewed studies? That more research is required, just like in the days of tobacco. But what have they actually done? More research? Hardly.

    In fact, Trump has ordered all government agencies to halt research on the health impacts of mtr. See reports from last August, 2017 in:

    the New York Times
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/climate/coal-mining-health-study-is-halted-by-interior-department.html

    the Washington Post
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/08/21/trump-administration-halted-a-study-of-mountaintop-coal-minings-health-effects/?utm_term=.6a1b75e71892

    the British paper The Independent
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-coal-mining-mountaintop-health-effects-halts-study-research-cancer-a7905856.html

    The White House has proposed slashing the interior department’s budget by 13 per cent, or $1.6bn, including 4,000 staff positions. In the Academy’s view, “this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed,”

    The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, that was going to conduct the $1m study over a two-year period, is a “private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.”

    In short, this is not “fake news.” People will die as a result of Trump’s actions as the lap dog of the coal industry. That is not something that can be minimized by pointing to long term shifts in market share between coal, natural gas and other fuels.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 01/25/2018 - 05:23 am.

    Please!

    He could have done more damage if he were not so stupid, but his threats go far beyond what you mention. This man talks about launching a first strike nuclear attack against North Korea. Would that be the biggest, quickest man-made destruction of life ever? Is an environmental impact that might kill 20 million people in one horrible day a really, really big environmental threat. Also is approach of not trusting scientific conclusions and making our common environment – land, air and water – something to be given to wealthy private interests.- that fundamentally creates a new paradigm where legalized theft is allowed.

    This article makes broad arguments with lots of words and at the environment in narrow, traditional ways. Instead, let’s have a list of all the ways Trump policies create environmental harm, measure how much harm has happened alrreasy, suggest how much has been blocked and project this forward. With off shore oil, the damage doesn’t occur until the rigs are built and the most effective resistance has come from Republican governments with NIMBY attitudes.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 01/25/2018 - 09:04 am.

    The reason Trump hasn’t ruined the

    Environment is he’s only reducing the redundancy that overflows in Govt programs, especially the EPA. One regulation that was first to go was a useless rule pertaining to proximity of industrial plants to “navigable waters “. Previous administrations had turned navigable waters to include standing water, that had to go. There are 11 pollution control statutes dealing with water and each on their own are overreacting, combined, you have gridlock and wasted money.

    • Submitted by Dave Paulson on 01/26/2018 - 05:33 pm.

      If that is his real objective, then why

      don’t his people explain it that way.

      Sure there is real progress to be made in revising the regulations so they work better. BUT you do not hear that and certainly do not see the reasoning laid out,

      They control the releases to the public from the agencies – not the bugaboo MSM.

      Why can’t we find these? Why do we not see public informed debate occur on these issues? Let’s agree that trump is ignorant and distracted by his need for praise to participate himself in the debate or even communication of reasoning. BUT the agencies have hundreds of people capable, and …crickets.

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 01/28/2018 - 08:41 am.

    Dave, I agree.

    Go talk to a small business owner about the hoops he has to jump through (plus thousands of dollars spent) just to open a business. Try getting a permit to put a paved parking lot in. 4 different studies by 4 different agencies to the tune of 1k per study for rain run off. That is why most business owners (39% GOP, 22% Dem, 29% Independent) are conservatives. Less Government, less regulations and more folks working. The reason you don’t hear about the Trump administration just reducing silly or redundant regulations is it is not Russia, Russia, Russia!
    Unfortunately, you either have to live these regulations or do your own research to find out how the regulations over a 35 year period increased and became redundant. GOP does a terrible job of explaining why.
    On a separate note, investigate Admiral Rogers (Obama appointee) and his FISC memo Opinion and Order. It deals with weaponizing the FBI and DOJ. This comes from the top man in the NSA, no spin needed, just the facts. You won’t see this in the MSM either.

Leave a Reply