Trump’s Climate Destruction Plan: A Deal He Can’t Close

President Trump’s sprawling executive order directing the EPA and other agencies to start dismantling President Obama’s climate legacy flies in the face of law, science, and strong public support for climate action.

Trump’s executive order is a Climate Destruction Plan.  It attacks the centerpiece of his predecessor’s climate legacy, the Clean Power Plan to limit the carbon pollution from the nation’s existing fleet of power plants. 

Trump’s order does not stop there. It tells the EPA to start rolling back carbon limits for new power plants. It directs the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management to begin scrapping curbs on methane leakage from the oil and gas industry.

Today’s order follows earlier steps to start weakening clean car and fuel economy standards. And the order strikes at economic tools for quantifying the benefits of climate protections (the social cost of carbon) and repeals other executive orders and guidelines. (NRDC backgrounders are here, here, here, and here.) 

As destructive as it aspires to be, however, Trump’s executive order cannot erase Clean Air Act standards and other climate protection rules by itself.  Scott Pruitt and the president’s other minions must follow the rule of law. They can tear down these regulations only using the same legal process it took to build them. Their final decisions must pass muster in the courts. 

We will fight them every step of the way. We’ll win because the law, the science, and public opinion are on our side.

This is another deal President Trump won’t be able to close.

Americans did not vote to roll back clean air, clean energy, and climate safeguards

Let’s start with what Americans support and oppose.

President Trump’s plans fly in the face of public opinion. Polls show that strong majorities―including majorities of Trump voters―want to keep or strengthen clean air, water, and climate safeguards and energy efficiency measures.

Here are data points from three recent polls:

Gallup, March 14, 2017:

  • “Record percentages of Americans are concerned about global warming, believe it is occurring, consider it a serious threat and say it is caused by human activity. All of these perceptions are up significantly from 2015.
  • Two-thirds of Americans say they are worried a "great deal" or "fair amount" about global warming.
  • 45% worry a “great deal”―up from 37% a year ago.

Quinnipiac, Feb. 8, 2017:

  • By 61 to 29%, Americans oppose Trump's removing specific regulations intended to combat climate change.
  • 72% of Americans are concerned about climate change, and 59% say the U.S. should be doing more to combat climate change.

Glover Park Group/Morning Consult, December 2016 survey of 2000 Trump voters:

  • 61% of Trump voters support requiring US companies to reduce carbon emissions, vs. 28% opposed.
  • 55% of Trump voters want to keep or strengthen current climate change policies, vs. 30% who want to “roll back” those policies.
  • 84% of Trump voters want the same or more federal regulations on drinking water and 78% want the same or more federal regulations on air pollution.
  • 76% of Trump voters support requiring manufacturers to make appliances more energy efficient.

Public opinion shows itself in other ways too. Millions of Americans raised their voices in support of the Clean Power Plan and other climate safeguards in comments sent to the EPA during the last administration.

Millions of Americans rallied for climate protection on inauguration weekend and will be heard in marches for science and climate protection next month. Thousands of citizens concerned about rolling back EPA safeguards are showing up at town halls and birddogging their members of Congress.

President Trump and Scott Pruitt ignore the public will at their peril.

Like having a Surgeon General who denies smoking causes cancer

Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, and many other cabinet nominees tried to disguise their climate denial in confirmation hearings earlier this year. The climate is changing, they said, but gee whiz there’s a lot of uncertainty.

But the mask came off when Pruitt bluntly told CNBC that he “would not agree that [carbon dioxide is] a primary contributor to the global warming we are seeing.” And when OMB director Mick Mulvaney declared: “as to climate change...we’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.”

Trump’s appointees live in an echo chamber totally out of step with established climate science. It’s as bad as having a Surgeon General who denies smoking causes lung cancer, or a NASA administrator who insists the world is flat.

NRDC tracks the Trump administration’s assaults on the environment.

Clean energy jobs exceed fossil fuel jobs, and are growing fast

Trump and his lieutenants falsely claim that climate safeguards hurt America’s economy, but the facts show otherwise. Economic growth has been uncoupled from climate pollution. Over the last eight years, our economy grew 10.6 percent while carbon pollution dropped 9.4 percent

Clean and renewable energy now employ more than three million Americans―more than in coal, oil, and natural gas production. In the past year alone solar jobs have grown by a quarter, and wind jobs by nearly a third.

Can Trump restore coal jobs? Even Robert Murray, owner of one of the largest remaining coal companies and a staunch Trump ally, says that won’t happen. “I suggested that he temper his expectations. Those are my exact words,” Murray told The Guardian. “He can’t bring them back.” 

Likewise, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has backed away from claims that repealing regulations will bring back jobs: “[T]hat's hard to tell because this is a private sector activity." 

The coal barons have been replacing American workers with machines for decades, and that’s going to continue. And coal will keep losing ground to cheaper ways to meet our electricity needs – gas, wind, solar, and energy efficiency.

We owe coal miners and communities a pathway to the future. The president should be trying to bring the clean energy economy to coal country, not selling false hopes of bringing back old jobs that even the coal barons say aren’t coming back.

The Clean Air Act makes it EPA’s job to act on climate

Scott Pruitt touts his love for “the rule of law” and claims EPA lacks the authority to curb carbon pollution. He’s wrong. 

The Clean Air Act of 1970, enacted by overwhelming bipartisan support and signed by President Nixon, gave the EPA the duty to curb all kinds of dangerous air pollutants, specifically including ones that change our climate. 

The Supreme Court has upheld this authority three times in the last 10 years.  It has held that EPA has the authority and responsibility under the Clean Air Act to curb climate-changing pollutants from cars, power plants, and other industries. (Massachusetts v. EPA (2007), American Electric Power v. Connecticut (2011), and Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA (2014).

As Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt challenged EPA’s scientific determination that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants endanger public health and welfare.  He lost.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decisively rejected his attack on the endangerment finding in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA (2012), and the Supreme Court refused even to hear this claim. Pruitt still insists there are still “fundamental questions” about whether Congress gave the EPA the authority to “deal with the CO2 issue.”.   

The D.C. Circuit is still considering a suit against the Clean Power Plan that Pruitt and other “fossil energy AGs” (as they were so aptly named in his Oklahoma emails) brought while he was still Oklahoma’s attorney general.

The court heard a full day of oral arguments last September before an extraordinary en banc panel of 10 judges. Most observers of those arguments expect the court to uphold the rule, and decision is expected any time. 

Trump’s executive order attempts to cut this off at the 11th hour, by directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to press the court not to rule. 

NRDC, together with our state, business, and environmental allies, will strenuously fight that move. The court is near the finish line and should issue its long-awaited ruling. A ruling on the critical legal issues would not only determine the validity of the Obama Clean Power Plan, but also guide and limit what Trump and Pruitt can and must do going forward.

Regulations aren’t established―or repealed―by the stroke of a president’s pen

For the Clean Power Plan and other rules, Trump’s executive order is just the beginning. An executive order cannot by itself change a final regulation. Administrator Pruitt can tear down these regulations only using the same process it took to build them. Here are the steps they will have to take to rescind or weaken a regulation:

  • Regulations are developed by issuing a proposal, holding public hearings, analyzing and responding to public comments, and issuing a final decision with a compelling legal and factual rationale. 
  • Revoking or modifying a regulation requires agencies to follow the same procedure, which will take months or even years. The public must be given the same opportunities to participate in a repeal or revision as when the regulation is developed for the first time.
  • Any final change is then subject to judicial review, allowing NRDC and others to challenge Trump administration decisions that violate underlying laws like the Clean Air Act and our energy efficiency and fuel economy laws. 

We will use all the tools at our disposal to protect the current climate safeguards at every step of this process. When Pruitt issues his proposals changes, we will marshal the strongest possible legal and scientific arguments why they do not meet his responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, and his duty to protect our children, our communities, and our planet. 

We will keep this in the public eye and in the news at every stage. We’ll help Americans flood the EPA with public comments calling for action, not retreat. 

And we will take him to court if he issues final decisions revoking or weakening these vital climate protection rules.

The law, the science, and public opinion are on our side. President Trump and Administrator Pruitt will not succeed.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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