Week 58: Trump Maybe Admits Obama’s Regulations Were Good for the Economy

Plus the Koch brothers reveal themselves, and Rick Perry is negotiating our nuclear agreements? Really?

March 02, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Shhhh. Regulations Are Good for the Economy.

The Office of Management and Budget released a major report last Friday night. (Releasing a major report on a Friday night is the Washington PR equivalent of hiding your uneaten peas in a napkin—you’re just hoping no one will look.) The report contained probably the most astonishing admission the Trump administration has ever made: Major regulations adopted during the Obama administration saved the country at least $131 billion and possibly as much as $636 billion.

This administration admitting that regulations help the economy is a bit like Lex Luthor acknowledging that Superman has had a salutary impact on fatal train accidents. The president spent his first year in office complaining about the “job-killing” effects of regulation to anyone who would listen. He says his deregulatory program is as important to the economy as his much bragged-about tax law. Meanwhile, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator and regulatory foe Scott Pruitt has promised us he will be “both pro-jobs and pro-environment.”

The OMB report shows that the Trump administration could have been both pro-jobs and pro-environment by simply leaving Obama’s regulations in place, rather than trying to replace them with non-rules that are going to make us sicker and less productive.

To be fair, the OMB noted in the report that much of the economic analysis was done by the prior administration and that it doesn’t necessarily stand behind these numbers. Yet it fails to make clear why the numbers may be wrong. It’s classic Trump: Deny inconvenient facts, don’t explain, and assume your Twitter followers will believe you rather than the other guy.

Join Robert Redford and sign a letter of protest against EPA chief Scott Pruitt

Pay No Attention to the Men Behind the Curtain

The news outlet The Intercept published memos this week from Charles and David Koch’s vast political and financial network in which the Kochtopus takes credit for many of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental decisions. One document lauds “the network’s policy, grassroots and communications capabilities” for the repeal of the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Rule, as well as the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. The Koch network also trumpeted its involvement in the administration’s decision to approve the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

Once bitter opponents of Trump, the Kochs have now seized on his lack of policy expertise as an opportunity to advance their agenda. At the end of 2017, a Koch donor told Mother Jones that “on many issues, [Trump] is a blank slate, so anybody with expertise is in an amazing position to shape his agenda.”

This Guy Is Negotiating Nuclear Agreements?

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry is set to discuss nuclear power with officials from Saudi Arabia in London this Friday. There are many odd and worrying facets to this story.

First, it seems the Trump administration has broken the law even before holding the meeting. Before the United States can export nuclear materials to another country, that nation must first sign a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, known as a “123 Agreement.” Because a 123 Agreement involves both the executive and legislative branches, the president is legally required to consult with Congress before beginning negotiations. According to Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the Trump administration never told Congress that Perry was going to begin these talks.

Second, Saudi Arabia’s plan to build nuclear reactors is not going to work—at least not at the budget they’ve established. The country says it will build 16 reactors in the next 25 years at a cost of around $80 billion, or $5 billion each. Good luck with that. The nuclear industry in the United States claims it can build a reactor for $9 billion, but even that is a vast underestimate. The tiny number of reactors that have actually broken ground in recent years are running behind schedule and far over budget. Some have already been canceled in mid-construction, leaving the public holding the bag. The situation in other countries is identical: No one can build a safe nuclear reactor for $5 billion. So, unless the Saudis are ready to up their budget by a factor of three or four, there’s no point in offering them nuclear materials.

Third, is Rick Perry really the guy to negotiate a nuclear agreement? This is a person who forgets his own proposals, jogs with a laser-sighted pistol, thinks coal is a weapon against sexual assault, and called the Deepwater Horizon spill an “act of God.” It’s bad enough that he is, ex officio, in charge of our nuclear arsenal. Let’s not send him abroad to personally negotiate sharing our nuclear fuel.

Hush Money?

An interesting dispute is percolating between the U.S. Department of Energy and Senate Democrats regarding contractors accused of silencing whistle-blowers.

On Tuesday, Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Ron Wyden of Oregon sent a letter to Rick Perry asking for details about $24 million his Energy Department delivered to a company called Lawrence Livermore National Security LLC. The senators suggest that the payments are reimbursements for legal fees incurred by the contractor while fighting whistle-blower claims brought by people working on DOE projects. The potential problem with the payments is that federal agencies are generally prohibited from repaying contractors for legal fees in these situations—it was, after all, the contractor’s wrongdoing that led to whistle-blowers in the first place, so why should the public pay its lawyers?

The larger question, though, is how this contractor managed to run up such a mountain of legal fees. Lawyers are expensive, but even at K Street rates, $24 million is a lot of billable hours. The senators’ letter doesn’t disclose the details of the cases, but it indicates that there are eight ongoing whistle-blower cases involving this contractor and DOE. 

I suppose we won’t know the full details of these cases until another whistle-blower blows another whistle on the legal claims. And I suppose we’ll then have another lawsuit and another payment and another letter . . .

Trump Watch: NRDC tracks the Trump administration’s assaults on the environment

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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