The Trump Administration's Rollback of Environmental Regulations
March 29, 2017
- On March 28, President Donald Trump signed the Energy Independence Executive Order, which reconsiders many environmental regulations established during President Barack Obama’s time in office.
- The order directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which was unveiled by Obama and the EPA in August 2015. The plan aimed to reduce annual CO2 emissions by setting emissions standards for electric generation, which accounts for 38 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. The Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the plan on February 9, 2016, pending a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals.
- The order instructs the Bureau of Land Management to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing, which was issued on January 15, 2016, with limited exceptions until a comprehensive review of risks of developing coal could be completed.
- The order calls for a review and possible revision or rescission of certain oil and gas production regulations. In 2016, the EPA issued new source performance standards and permitting requirements for onshore oil and gas producers that would effectively tighten emissions limits on methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and toxic air pollutants. In 2015 and 2016, the Department of the Interior issued final rules increasing regulations on oil and gas development, hydraulic fracturing, and methane disposal on federal lands.
- The order replaces the Obama-era Interagency Working Group findings on the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) with a 2003 Office of Management and Budget circular and rescinds the Council on Environmental Quality guidelines for conducting National Environmental Policy Act reviews. The social cost of carbon is a standard created by the EPA to price the negative externalities of carbon dioxide emissions; more than 150 regulations have used the SCC to quantify their economic effects. Currently, the SCC sits at $36 per metric ton of carbon dioxide.
- The order also repeals four executive orders issued by Obama addressing climate change preparedness.
President Trump has clearly signaled that he intends to follow through on a campaign promise to loosen or rescind Obama-era environmental regulations in order to promote energy independence, economic growth, and job creation. Save for a few items that can be immediately carried out as a result of yesterday’s action, the executive order is the beginning of a long and contentious process to revisit those regulations both through administrative procedure and much anticipated legal battles.
Following the executive order announcement, the Department of Justice requested that the Court of Appeals suspend the lawsuits underway against the CPP and allow the EPA to rewrite the rule. Scott Pruitt, who now serves as the administrator of the EPA, sued the EPA over the CPP and is unlikely to defend the rule in its current form but may have to let the current legal process play out. Either way, rewriting the CPP will take significant time and resources.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has begun reviewing the federal coal leasing program and on March 15, approved a 56-million-ton coal lease in Central Utah, which completed review during the Obama administration. Zinke also filed a motion to suspend the Department of Interior’s defense of Obama’s 2015 regulations on hydraulic fracturing on public land. That rule, like the CPP, has yet to take effect. Similarly, supporters of the rule are lining up legal challenges.
The executive order also comes two weeks after Pruitt and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the EPA would revisit its Mid-Term Evaluation of the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards and deliver a final decision before April 2018. In 2011, President Obama announced that automakers would have to increase fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025; in 2014, the fleet averaged a fuel economy of 31.5 mpg. On January 13, 2017, the EPA issued its Mid-Term Evaluation confirming the original fuel economy standards for 2022–2025. Again, the process to revisit the Mid-Term Evaluation could be lengthy and will not affect CAFE standards until 2022 at the earliest.
The executive order was most intriguing for what it did not contain. The order did not withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement—a move that some have argued has unnecessary costs and very few benefits for the United States but was among the Trump administration’s campaign promises. The order also did not go so far as to direct EPA to revisit the endangerment finding, which lays the groundwork for much of EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide. There is no guarantee the administration won’t simply pursue these two agenda items at a later date, but it is certainly notable that they were not included.
The executive order also did not acknowledge that some regulation also helps spur domestic energy production and ensure its development. Given the long lead time involved in the reviews set off by the executive order, there is an opportunity to correct course on this point. The order does direct all agencies to remove barriers to domestic energy production from all sources of energy (prioritizing coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear)—an important review that if taken seriously may show that some of the regulations put in place by the Obama administration could in fact be maintained or tweaked to create opportunities for domestic energy generation in some of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States: natural gas and renewables. The fact that many of the actions put forth in this executive order provide time for evaluation and reflection is heartening for all those who realize the myriad ways in which the U.S. energy sector has transformed in the last decade and should be seen as an opportunity to write effective regulation and policies to maximize the benefits of the ongoing transformation.