Week 9: KXL Gets Approved, and the Climate Debate in the White House Gets Heated

As Trump mulls over whether to combat climate change (or continue to deny that it’s happening), his team fights with itself.

March 24, 2017

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

Anti–Keystone XL pipeline sign along the planned route near Fullerton, Nebraska

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Another Twist in the Pipeline

The State Department approved the Keystone XL Pipeline on Friday, the first of many steps required for TransCanada to complete the project, which has become more a political symbol than an oil transport mechanism. As oil companies abandon their financially untenable tar sands investments in Alberta and the cost of conventional oil remains relatively low, the business case for the KXL pipeline has all but disappeared.

Many expensive legal hurdles remain. TransCanada still lacks a route through Nebraska. If one is approved, the Canadian company will need to secure easements to build through private property, which many Nebraskan landowners have refused to grant. TransCanada will also need permits under the Clean Water Act, a requirement that previously tripped up the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In short, there’s a long, expensive road ahead for TransCanada, so it better have a lot of cash lying around. What’s that you say? You don’t? Uh-oh.

A White House Divided

On February 7, a group of influential Republicans announced a carbon tax plan to fight climate change. The next day, the GOP’s Wise Old Men—including James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and keeper of the Reagan flame—visited the White House to present their plan and reportedly met with some of Trump’s closest advisers and family members. Vice President Mike Pence was present, as were Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.

Former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn, now director of the National Economic Council

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

But the most interesting part of the RSVP list is that Gary Cohn, the head of Trump’s National Economic Council, was there, while Steve Bannon, Trump’s controversial right-hand man, was conspicuously absent. According to Politico, Bannon and Cohn are two of the most important figures in a White House power struggle that will decide not only Trump’s approach to climate change but his overall governing strategy.

You already know more than you probably care to about Bannon, the former head of the alt-right “news” site Breitbart and ultraconservative provocateur who thinks the press should “keep its mouth shut.” Bannon intends to disassemble U.S. government, not brick by brick but all at once.

You probably know less about Cohn. A former Goldman Sachs executive, Cohn is known for his caution, pragmatism, and centrism. Cohn is, improbably, a registered Democrat in the Trump White House. He also scares the hell out of Bannon and his allies. The leaking of this story—that Cohn allegedly welcomed the bearers of a carbon tax plan into the White House—likely represents an attempt to delegitimize Cohn among Trump loyalists by painting him as a one-man Democratic sleeper cell within the White House.

According to the Politico report, it’s not enough for the extremist wing of the White House that the views of their ideological opponents are rejected by the president; they don’t even want Trump to hear them. The Bannon acolytes recoiled from the idea that anyone would be allowed to propose a carbon tax in the White House. (They’ve also tried to keep the architects of Obamacare from speaking with the president.)

Keep your eye on Cohn and his fellow economic centrists. They may be the best hope for the country’s fight against climate change.

Called to the Bar

When EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s use of a private e-mail account to communicate with a petroleum industry lobbyist during his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general became public earlier this month, the obvious comparison to make was to Hillary Clinton. During his campaign, Donald Trump made voluminous political hay of Clinton’s private e-mail use while she was secretary of state, repeatedly threatening to “lock her up” for the mistake.

But there is an obvious difference between Clinton’s and Pruitt’s e-mail troubles: Clinton confessed her use of a private e-mail server to Congress, while Pruitt misled Congress about his e-mail transgression. He told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, “I use only my official e-mail address and government-issued phone to conduct official business.”

This week, the Center for Biological Diversity along with the University of Oklahoma law professor Kristen van de Biezenbos filed an ethics complaint against Pruitt with the Oklahoma Bar Association, seeking an investigation into whether Pruitt perjured himself before Congress.

Which raises the possibility that people have been comparing Pruitt to the wrong Clinton. Bill Clinton temporarily lost his law license in 2001 as punishment for misleading a jury in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. Might Pruitt face the same punishment for his falsehood? That would be nice, but unfortunately for the planet, the suspension or loss of Pruitt’s bar license would not prevent this climate denier from continuing as EPA administrator.

Still Seems Pretty Swampy to Me

Remember when Rick Perry ran for president? No, not in 2012, when he briefly led in the polls before “oops”-ing his way through the debates and forgetting his own platform. I’m talking about the 2016 campaign. Yes, Rick Perry ran for president in 2016. Really. It was the time he wore glasses. Look it up!

Nuclear power station, Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania


Anyway, Perry’s campaign manager was a guy named Jeff Miller, a Californian who once advised Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to a report this week in E&E News, Miller has launched his own lobbying firm, and his first clients include Southern Company, one of the country’s largest utilities, and Energy Transfer Partners, which is building the Dakota Access Pipeline.

And Miller isn’t the only one trying to cash in on his Trump administration connections. A pair of Scott Pruitt’s former associates recently accepted lobbying work on the renewable fuel standard for a gas station chain.

This isn’t so much draining the swamp as filling ’er up.

Shooting Babies for “Sport”

The first time the current Congress wielded its authority to nullify recently enacted regulations, it did so to benefit perpetrators of bribery. Legislators used the Congressional Review Act again this week, this time to benefit people who want to shoot bear and wolf cubs.

Bear cub in Yellowstone National Park

Getty Images/National Geographic

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted rules last year that put limits on the hunting of predators at certain times of the year and in certain environments where they are defenseless, such as when cubs are sleeping in their dens. On Tuesday, at the behest of Alaska state officials, the Senate voted to overturn the rules and prevent all future administrations from attempting to protect vulnerable predators in a similar manner.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

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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