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

Trump promised voters (and, more important, the GOP’s corporate clientele) a pro-business dismantling of the administrative state. But how much genuine harm is being done? 

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.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.