Sitting at a desk at the Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that attacks the heart of former President Barack Obama’s climate legacy: the Clean Power Plan.
The order will set the EPA on course to scrap the regulation, and begin dismantling many of the federal government’s other policies for addressing climate change.
This will bend the curve of US greenhouse gas emissions upward. And like any move from an impactful president, its biggest consequences would likely be felt not in the next year but in the coming decades and centuries.
‘We will put our miners back to work’
Trump can’t simply scrap a federal regulation like the Clean Power Plan with a stroke of his pen. Instead, he has ordered his EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, to begin the process of doing away with it.
The Clean Power Plan is a regulation created by the agency under Obama. It targets power plants in 47 states (Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont, which don’t have power plants covered by the regulation, are excepted), aiming to cut their carbon emissions to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Each state has specific short and long term goals, based on its existing needs and infrastructure.
In a series of remarks before the signing, top Trump administration officials laid out the case for the plan.
“You know, our nation can’t run on pixie dust and hope,” said Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the Interior, “And the last eight years showed us that.”
Vice President Mike Pence said that West Virginia had lost over a third of its coal mining jobs, with 130 plants closing in recent years
“Those days are over, because the war on coal is over,” Pence said.
Trump echoed the statement.
“I made them this promise: We will put our miners back to work,” he said, to applause from the crowd, which included group of coal miners who had been brought up on stage.
Many analysts disagree with the claim that deregulating coal will do much to increase the number of coal mining jobs, given the rise in automation and the availability of cheap natural gas. Robert Murray, founder and chief executive of Murray Energy – America’s largest privately held coal company – has said that lost coal mining jobs aren’t coming back. Murray was in the front row of the audience at the EPA for the signing.
A broad attack on climate regulations
The President’s order also targets fossil fuel rules, lifting a moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal land, beginning to relax limits on new coal power plant construction, and rolling back rules designed to limit methane emissions in oil and gas extraction. (Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, though less common than carbon dioxide.)
Obama’s Climate Action Plan, a blueprint for preparing the country for the impacts of climate change and mitigating them before they happen, is also expected to be scrapped, along with the former president’s other executive orders on climate issues.
The final key aspect of the order is an effort to lower the “social cost of carbon.” That’s a court-mandate metric the federal government uses to judge the climate impact of decisions that impact carbon. Right now, the social cost of carbon dioxide is set at $36 per ton, so projects and regulations that will drive carbon emissions have to factor in that cost. If the administration lowers it, carbon emissions will play a smaller role in federal decision making.
There are limits on its effectiveness
The important thing to understand is that this is a first step. Environmental lawyers who we have interviewed in the weeks leading up to this order point out that the president doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally set US environmental policy.
Congress writes the laws that govern the EPA and other agencies, and mandate the actions they take. In this case, the most important law to keep in mind is the Clean Air Act, which mandates that the EPA safeguard the atmosphere in the US. Any effort to roll back greenhouse gas rules would be potentially subject to a court challenge.
In addition, Trump’s power is limited by natural forces in the economy. As the Associated Press points out, renewable-energy jobs already outnumber coal jobs, and many renewable-energy technologies are on their way to being cheaper than coal.
It’s also not clear that the public will support a return to a higher-emissions era. In every congressional district in the US, a majority of Americans support strict CO2 limits on coal plants.
Still, this is an ambitious plan to reshape the future, and it might work
Trump doesn’t have unlimited power, but he has a lot of power, as well as a Congress that broadly supports his climate agenda.
Soon after the election in November, Business Insider reporter Kevin Loria wrote that a Trump presidency means billions more tons of CO2 could be released into the atmosphere. This order is a big step in that direction, and the largest salvo yet in a battle over the future of US climate policy.
In signing this order, Trump has turned turning sharply away from the commitment the United States made in Paris, along with 185 other countries, to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.
This also means that the US will go four more years without taking further steps to cut carbon emissions. Even if Trump were to fail to roll back most of the regulations, that would be a big deal.
Climate scientists broadly agree that time is running out to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, and that even with dramatic efforts – like the 80% cut in emissions by 2050 proposed by Trump’s opponent – it’s likely already too late to prevent some impacts.
Trump’s executive order is designed to set the US on course for a world with far more greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.