President Trump on Tuesday will order the Environmental Protection Agency to dismantle his predecessor’s landmark climate effort, backing away from an aggressive plan to cut emissions at power plants that had been the foundation of America’s leadership on confronting global warming.
The work of reducing such emissions will continue in California and many other states — and around the world. But the move by Trump threatens to cede the role America had established in leading the global environmental fight, and further cements the Trump administration’s alliance with a fossil fuel industry that has long resisted climate action.
The directive that administration officials said Trump will issue takes aim at the Clean Power Plan, a far-reaching initiative former President Obama signed in 2015. The program mandates a substantial reduction of utility plant emissions by 2030. The plants account for nearly a third of the greenhouse gas released in the United States, making them the nation’s most potent accelerator of global warming.
“We are going to go in a different direction,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the president’s announcement under the condition of anonymity. “The president has been very clear that he is not going to pursue climate or environmental issues that put the U.S. economy at risk.”
Trump’s order to retreat from the plan places in jeopardy the ability of the United States to meet its obligations under the international climate change accord Obama took a lead in negotiating in Paris, which EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt criticized over the weekend as a “bad deal.” It also invites a years-long legal and political battle with well-funded environmental groups and states embracing the targets.
Trump’s plans to curb climate action also reach well beyond power plants. A pioneering EPA rule that sets a “social cost” for carbon, placing a dollar value on the long-term damage caused by each ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, will be eliminated. An Obama-era requirement that all government agencies factor climate effects into their decision making, particularly as they launch new projects, is also targeted. Trump will also lift a moratorium on coal leasing on federal land.
But it is the power plant rules that have been the cornerstone of federal efforts on climate change. Trump will join 27 states that were already fighting the Clean Power Plan, characterizing it as an overreach of federal authority — even as many of the states resisting it were already on track to meet the plan’s requirements. Pruitt was a leader of the crusade to scuttle the plan in his previous job as attorney general of Oklahoma.
The Supreme Court put the power plant rules on hold last year to allow states to make their case before federal judges. Trump is expected to ask a Washington, D.C., circuit court to put off an imminent ruling on the legality of the Clean Power Plan while the EPA drafts new, weaker rules.
“It’s clear that the past administration had a very anti-fossil-fuel strategy,” Pruitt said when asked about Trump’s pending order on ABC on Sunday. ”This is a promise he’s keeping to the American people to say that we can put people back to work and be pro-environment as well.”
The effect Trump’s action would have on the economy is very much in dispute. Energy experts warning that the clean power rules raise prices, inhibit job growth and constrain the ability of companies to pivot as market conditions change are countered by others reporting that the rules are helping drive a robust green energy sector and that innovations are lowering the cost of power. Several large corporations point to cost savings as a factor in their own pursuit of green energy.
The Trump administration’s effort will be met with lawsuits from environmental groups and liberal states arguing it is legally bound to enforce the power plant rules, which were drafted through an extensive regulatory process that ultimately involved 4.3 million public comments and endless hours of hearings and workshops. They will point to the EPA’s finding in 2009 that greenhouse gases endanger the public health and welfare and must be controlled, and the Clean Power Plan is an essential part of controlling their release.
“There is a real question of whether they can legally dismantle the Clean Power Plan and replace it with nothing,” said Jody Freeman, who was Obama’s advisor on climate change and now directs the environmental law program at Harvard. Before the plan was put in place, she said, utilities found themselves exposed to potentially costly nuisance lawsuits from states demanding they take action to limit exposure to the public health threat of carbon. Those suits could reemerge, she said, if the revised EPA plan lifts greenhouse gas restrictions on power companies.
“The utilities may find themselves opening a Pandora’s box,” Freeman said.
Several Western state governors and big-city mayors, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, have already made clear that Trump’s order will not discourage their eager embrace of clean energy. “Too much is at stake — from our health and safety to our jobs and livelihoods — for us to move backwards,” their joint statement said.
In California, the state was already so far ahead in reducing emissions by the time the Clean Power Plan was signed that it had no effect on the state’s energy plans. In many ways, the Obama plan was a vindication of California’s own landmark climate efforts, launched in large part to motivate nationwide action at a time when the White House — then occupied by George W. Bush — was resistant to joining the international climate fight.
Now, liberal coastal states are no longer alone in having invested heavily in lower-emissions plants. As prices for natural gas plunged in recent years, moving companies to abandon coal-burning facilities, even states that sued the Obama administration find themselves far along in meeting the goals the EPA laid out for them under the Clean Power Plan. Some of those states also embraced their own aggressive targets for emissions reductions, as part of an effort to bolster homegrown renewable energy industries and promote domestic energy independence.
Even without the Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Energy Information Administration anticipates renewable electricity generation will grow by 3.9% a year. With the Clean Power plan in place, it would grow even faster, the agency found, at 4.7% annually through 2030.
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