Energy & Environment

Five ways Trump could unwind Obama’s environmental policies


Many of President Obama’s climate and environmental policies are unlikely to survive under President-elect Donald Trump.

Trump railed against Obama’s record throughout the presidential campaign, promising to repeal regulations, increase fossil fuel production and more. 

Since so much of Obama’s record on the environment is built on regulations and executive actions, Trump can scale back or outright reverse much of it without action from Congress. 

{mosads}Trump will be able to start executing many of the changes on his first day in office, while others will require a long regulatory process.

Here are five of the major changes Trump is likely to bring. 

Allow more fossil fuel production 

Trump promised during the campaign that he would “unleash an energy revolution,” in large part by making it easier to extract oil, natural gas and coal, even though domestic oil and gas production levels are near record highs. 

He said that on his first day in office, he would lift “the restrictions on the production of $50 trillion dollars’ worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal, and we will put our miners back to work.”

One of his top targets is the Obama administration’s moratorium on new leases for mining coal on federal land, which began earlier this year. The administration said it was imposing the moratorium while it reviews the environmental impacts of the federal coal program and possible policy changes such as increased royalty rates.

The coal moratorium falls under the purview of the Interior Department, which Trump tapped Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) to lead. Zinke has been an outspoken opponent of the moratorium, which he said has an outsized impact on Montana. 

Trump also wants to make more areas available for offshore drilling. Obama recently made final a five-year schedule for offshore leases that excludes the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which prompted congressional Republicans to call for Trump to immediately expand areas for drilling. 

Obama’s final years in office have brought numerous regulations on oil and natural gas drilling, including rules regarding hydraulic fracturing and methane emissions.

Companies say those rules severely limit their growth and are pushing for them to be repealed. The rule on fracking on federal land, written by the Interior Department, was struck down in court, and Trump could quickly end the Obama administration’s appeal of the decision. 

Repeal regulations

Obama’s regulations have been a hallmark of his environmental agenda. He frequently argued that Congress fell short of its responsibility to protect the environment and tasked his administration with filling the gap.

Since so many of Obama’s policies were regulatory, Trump can use the same regulatory process to roll them back. 

The Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule were two of the regulations Trump spoke about unwinding most frequently on the campaign trail. Both are on hold while they are being litigated.

The climate rule limits carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, while the water rule asserts federal authority over small waterways like streams and wetlands. 

Representatives of two dozen conservative states this week wrote to Trump to suggest that he take action on his first day in office against the climate rule. They said he could immediately declare that it is illegal and instruct the EPA not to enforce it, then later work through the regulatory process to wipe it from the books. 

Any move by the Trump administration to roll back a regulation would be subject to lawsuits from environmentalists, liberal states and others. Courts are likely to give Trump wide leeway in his regulatory moves, but they might not let him roll back everything he wants to. 

Stop international cooperation on climate

Last year’s Paris agreement, in which nearly 200 nations agreed to limit or cut their greenhouse gas emissions, was one of the top items on Obama’s climate agenda. 

It’s also one of Trump’s top targets. While he has shown some signs since Election Day of reconsidering, he promised to “cancel” the accord, and his aides have analyzed strategies to quickly pull the United States out of it — potentially within the first 100 days of his presidency. 

Obama promised as part of the agreement that the United States would reduce its emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025. But the emissions cuts are not internationally binding, so Trump could also choose to ignore them altogether. 

Beyond the Paris agreement, Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry made climate a top diplomatic priority. In recent years they have used almost every high-level diplomatic communication to push international leaders on the issue. 

Trump, by contrast, has shown no willingness to follow suit. Rex Tillerson, his nominee for secretary of State and the outgoing CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., comes from a company that supports the Paris accord, but it remains to be seen if that will inform his work as the country’s top diplomat. 

Stop defending Obama’s regulations in court 

Nearly every major environmental regulation from Obama garnered a lawsuit from the industries it affects and from conservative states, and much of that litigation is ongoing. 

Once Trump takes office, he will have the power to instruct Justice Department attorneys to stop defending the regulations. 

Those attorneys could let the courts decide the cases, or could ask the courts to let the agencies go back and rewrite the rules. 

Since the fracking rule has been overturned by a district court and is now being appealed, the decision to stop defending it could mean that the rule is dead.

Other major regulations like the Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States could potentially be sent back to the agencies. But it is up to the courts to decide.

When the Trump administration declines to defend Obama’s regulations, environmental groups are likely to step in to defend them, whether the federal government wants them to or not. 

Weaken environmental enforcement

Trump’s attorneys in the EPA, the Justice Department and other agencies will have great leeway in how they enforce environmental laws against companies that pollute or break other laws.

Recent Republican administrations have taken action to cut back on enforcement at the EPA and elsewhere, while Democrats have ramped it up.

Trump, his attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions and others would have multiple tools at their disposal to ease up on punishments. 

They could use prosecutorial discretion to decide which cases to pursue, change budgeting to devote less money to the cause or prioritize resources to certain law enforcement issues over others.

Environmental groups can at times challenge changes to enforcement policy in court. Specifically, greens can sometimes sue companies that break laws if the federal government doesn’t take action, or if they argue that the action is too weak. 

Tags Donald Trump Jeff Sessions John Kerry

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