Would Trump Undo Obama's Environmental Legacy?

Would Trump Undo Obama's Environmental Legacy?
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Of the tens of thousands of words spoken by Donald Trump in the 11 months since launching his Republican presidential primary blitzkrieg, very few involved specifics on energy and environmental policy. Yes, it’s true that in the past, i.e. 2012-2015, he called climate change a variety of epithets: a “hoax,” “bullshit” and a “con job.” But Trump’s verbal volatility and ability to flip-flop on any policy have made his actual policy positions difficult to pin down.

So his discussion on CNBC on May 5 was important because it came across as among his least-bombastic and most coherent interviews concerning what he would do in the first 100 days of his presidency, if elected.

“More and more I hear it, the business people talk about regulation more than they talk about taxes…. And with energy … we’re going to be opening up energy, we’re going to get the miners back to work, we’re going to be doing a lot to spur the economy,” Trump said.

A simple parsing of his phrases – “opening up energy” or “put the miners back to work” –implies overturning important elements of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), which is the main method by which the U.S. plans to meet its emissions obligations promised at the Paris climate change convention in December.

“According to the attitude that he has expressed, he would be a major threat to health and the environment” if elected, said David Goldston, the director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. “He doesn’t believe in climate change, he doesn’t believe in the ozone hole, and he talks about dismantling the EPA.”

How is a wholesale rollback of Obama’s environmental regime possible? The quick answer is that the failure of cap-and-trade legislation in 2010 forced the administration to try and achieve its environmental goals via the executive branch. By deciding to go down the executive-action path, the risk existed of a rollback if Republicans regained the White House.

The easiest way to undo Obama’s environmental efforts would be for a President Trump to simply order his administration to stop working on a series of environmental rules that are still in draft form or mired in the federal court system. The CPP would qualify, given that federal courts may not decide on its legality until 2017. Other EPA-sponsored energy-related rules that could be quickly undermined by a Trump presidency include a “well-control” methane rule just finalized last week, and a Waters of the United States rule, both of which are struggling to make it through the courts.

“He’s going to be an old-school pro-business Republican with a harder edge,” said Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist who deals with energy and environment issues. “He would target the things that underpin the whole structure of the Obama environmental policy. He’ll look at the Clean Power Plan and say, ‘Are we out of our frigging mind?’”

If Trump wanted to get into the guts of the Obama administration’s long-term plan to move the United States away from a carbon economy, he could start by amending the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s  “social cost of carbon” calculation or changing the framework behind the EPA’s 2009 Endangerment Finding. The latter is the most important legal precondition supporting Obama’s (and the environmental community’s) long-term environmental agenda.

Other analysts express doubt about Trump’s ability or desire to upend current environmental trends, believing the long-standing administrative rules regarding public comment and judicial review may make any rollback of Obama’s actions not worth Trump’s time or energy.

“He can’t undo it all. He can reinterpret a lot, but reinterpreting doesn’t necessarily make it gone forever, or even reverse the trend,” said Kevin Book, a principal at ClearView Energy Partners. If elected, “he has the administrative power, but if you’re going to reverse findings, after all that has happened, you’re going to need a lot of ink, a lot of time and a lot of lawyers.”

A Trump administration would need support from Congress, and given the possibility that Democrats may regain control of the Senate, Trump’s deal-making tendencies scare any number of Republican energy purists. Trump’s complete lack of ideological obligations considering environmental policy, and his desire to negotiate big changes in U.S. policy, mean it is possible he could offer Democrats a national tax on carbon in return for comprehensive tax reform or immigration reform, according to some analysts.

Such a turn of events – Trump fulfilling Obama’s most ambitious environmental legislation while undermining his executive actions – would be a major irony, especially in light of the political environment that allowed Trump to become the presumptive Republican nominee in the first place.

Bill Murray is the editor of RealClearEnergy.

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