Editorial: Despite Trump’s bluster, rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations is not a done deal

Smoke rises from a coal burning power plant in Colstrip, Mont.
(Matt Brown / AP)

Make no mistake, President Trump’s order Tuesday rolling back key Obama administration policies to combat global warming is a very bad step for the country, and for the world. As it is, U.S. efforts to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions need to be stronger if the planet is to avoid the worst effects of catastrophic climate change. Trump’s ignorant, head-in-the-sand approach makes it even less likely that the U.S. will meet its promised carbon emissions targets established under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

That is, if all of Trump’s policies actually get to the point of action. Some will be easy to implement, such as rescinding Obama’s moratorium on new coal leases on public lands. (Although, given the collapsed market for coal and increased automation, it’s not likely that Trump’s pledge to put miners back to work will come to pass.)

But changes to adopted regulations will be tougher because of court rulings that require the government to explain why the old regulations are no longer valid, and why the new ones are necessary. Trump wants, for example, to scrap Obama regulations designed to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas wells to 40% below 2012 levels by 2025. But given that methane has a much higher short-term impact on global warming than carbon dioxide, Trump may have a hard time explaining the benefits of the change.

Regardless of what Trump does, the future lies in renewable energy sources.


Trump’s biggest target is the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, under which states must sharply curtail carbon emissions from power plants. The goal is a 32% percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, but the regulations have been stalled over legal challenges. For Trump to undo those regulations, though, he would have submit new ones for public review and comment, and, in the face of promised legal actions by backers of the Obama regulations, prove to the courts that the rollbacks are in the nation’s best interest and are not arbitrary. So, Trump’s bluster aside, undoing the Obama regulations is not a fait accompli.

Further, while power companies, and the coal and oil-and-gas industries support rolling back the Obama policies, they also have been moving toward emissions reductions in anticipation of tighter regulations. That momentum isn’t likely to change, given the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s actions. Large energy infrastructure decisions like whether to build new generating plants are made based on often decades-long financial projections, and Trump’s pro-carbon policies could be undone by the next president in as short as four years. In recent years, those investment decisions have focused more on natural gas and renewable energy than the more expensive and dirtier coal. So ending the Clean Power Plan before it goes into effect would give some existing power plants a longer operating life, but likely wouldn’t spark a building boom in coal-fired plants.

Trump’s skepticism about climate change and his appointment of like-minded disbelievers to key environmental administrative positions has shown the world he is an outlier when it comes to the consensus that human activity is heating up the planet and that human activity is required to address it. Candidate Trump vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which included unprecedented promises by nearly every nation on Earth to take concrete steps to reduce their carbon emissions. It was a nonbinding pact without enforcement mechanisms, but world leaders are still moving forward to fulfill their promises to reach their goals. While it would take about four years for Trump to formally withdraw the U.S. from the pact, the president could effectively end American efforts sooner by refusing to act on Obama’s emissions reduction promises. That would not only set back the worldwide efforts to reduce emissions — but it also would elevate China into the top role as global leader on the issue, which would make the president one of those people he tweets about: a loser.

Regardless of what Trump does, the future lies in renewable energy sources. If he really wants to add jobs to the U.S. economy, he’d embrace policies that would make the U.S. the undisputed leader in global renewable innovation and production, rather than clinging to the past, and to a dangerous reliance on fossil fuels.

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