Trump’s executive order issued Tuesday doesn’t just knock over the centerpiece of Obama administration’s efforts to prevent the worst effects of climate change, the Clean Power Plan. It also includes a list of disastrous concessions that the fossil fuel industry and its front groups have worked for years to win.
It orders the Interior Department to end a moratorium on new coal mine leasing on federal land; directs agencies to reconsider rules limiting emissions from hydraulic fracturing; kills guidance requiring climate change be considered in environmental reviews for infrastructure projects; and calls for a re-calculating of the social cost of carbon, which puts a dollar value on what greenhouse gas emissions cost society. Trump’s order also demands federal agencies rethink any policy that stands in the way of energy development and cancels other Obama-era climate efforts such as his Climate Action Plan.
Fully dismantling the Clean Power Plan and writing a new rule will take years, and be rife with legal and regulatory roadblocks. Still, the order is the biggest Trump giveaway yet to an industry eager to postpone a day of reckoning on climate change.
It follows the State Department’s approval last week of a key permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which had been denied by the Obama administration over concerns about climate change. The week before that, Trump asked Congress to cut the EPA by nearly a third and also ordered a rollback of Obama’s fuel efficiency rules for vehicles. Thanks to another reversal from Trump, the Dakota Access Pipeline is now filled with oil and ready to run, according to court papers filed yesterday.
Trump has consistently hired climate deniers, energy company employees, and advocates of environmental deregulation for key positions. Next, he is expected to appoint three friends of the industry to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the panel that approves natural gas pipelines.
As White House budget director Mick Mulvaney put it, “Regarding the question as to climate change, I think the president was fairly straightforward – we’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money.”
Trump’s policies do ensure, however, that money will be spent on climate-change-inducing energy infrastructure. With each order Trump signs, the physical landscape of his presidency comes into sharper focus.
A strip mine in Utah, two oil pipelines in the Dakotas, coal plants across the U.S., and a liquid natural gas export facility in Oregon: these are some of the fossil fuel projects that Trump’s actions will help build, revive, or preserve.
Meanwhile, scientists look warily toward melting glaciers in Alaska, waters lapping further ashore of the Gulf Coast, and worsening drought and famine in Somalia and Yemen where the U.S. has deployed drones and troops.
Trump doesn’t deserve sole credit for the era he’s ushering in. Tuesday’s order is a culmination of a generation’s worth of work by the fossil fuel industry to keep the federal government from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
It was in 1998 that Environmental Protection Agency lawyers first asserted that the agency could put limits on greenhouse gas emissions, as long as it established that they harmed human health and the environment. It would be another nine years before the Supreme Court backed up the EPA lawyers. And it wasn’t until 2009 that the agency finally announced that climate-warming gases did indeed cause harm.
The fossil fuel industry was alert the whole time, fortifying a massive anti-science infrastructure of front groups, fringe scientists, and sympathetic politicians put in place to protect fossil fuel profits from collapsing. Even as it seemed that public sentiment was shifting against climate deniers, and Republican politicians and companies started to hedge their statements — admitting that climate change is happening, but misleadingly claiming that we don’t know how much of it is the fault of humans — they kept up their assault on regulation.
Obama’s Clean Power Plan was a lightning rod. The 2014 proposal would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants 32 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels. It would achieve this by setting carbon emission reduction goals for every state in the contiguous United States, which would force some plants to switch from coal to natural gas or renewable sources. Last year, the Supreme Court halted implementation of the plan while states argued against it in federal court. Litigation to kill the plan was led by attorneys general with close ties to the fossil fuel industry, like new EPA head Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma.
The coal industry, already suffering as cheap gas obtained via hydraulic fracturing forced coal plants to close, expected to take the biggest hit. As the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, Bruce Nilles, put it, “For coal mining companies the likes of Peabody, and [Murray Energy CEO] Bob Murray, who have been losing their shirts, this is a fight to the death.”
Trump’s order grants floundering coal giants a gasping wish — and it’s a boon to the entire fossil fuel industry, removing obstacles for a series of energy projects across the country.
North Dakota provides a useful vantage point from which to observe what will happen if all goes according to Trump’s plans. The state was assigned one of the highest emissions reduction goals in the country — 45 percent. It gets about three quarters of its energy from the state’s large reserves of lignite, or “brown,” coal, considered the most polluting variety. Over time, Trump policies would leave North Dakota’s landscape with more coal plants and coal mines and fewer wind turbines, not to mention the Dakota Access Pipeline. Oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing from the state’s Bakken fields has now entered the Dakota Access line, crossing the Missouri River. The river’s waters were the focus of a massive resistance encampment against the pipeline, led by members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and forcibly shut down at the end of February.
Meanwhile, in North Dakota’s neighboring states, Montana and South Dakota, the revived Keystone XL pipeline would send carbon-intensive bitumen from Canada’s tar sands across the border to southern refineries. That project also faces massive pushback from tribes, property owners, and environmental groups.
In Utah, Alton Coal Development’s Coal Hollow mine will move forward now that the moratorium on coal leasing on federal land is being lifted. The proposed strip mine expansion, located a few miles from Bryce Canyon National Park, would produce 2 million tons of coal annually, worth an estimated 4.8 million tons of carbon dioxide if sold and burned. Alton has claimed that the portion of the mine already operating on private land would have to shut down if it is not allowed to expand onto public land, and two counties in Utah sued the Interior Department for stalling the mine. Area residents and wildlife conservationists have objected to the project for years, arguing that it threatens natural and cultural resources in the area, including the park.
Though framed as a jobs program, lifting the moratorium is another giveaway to the industry. It was put in place because reports have indicated the current leasing program allows coal-mining companies to pay less than market prices to access and sell a public resource. The Obama Administration began a review of the leasing program to figure out where it was failing taxpayers, and the Department of Interior demanded that new leases wait until the results came in. The moratorium was most threatening to coal companies not because it prevented mining from moving forward — in fact the current market for coal supports hardly any new leases — but because it threatened to force companies to pay more money in royalties to the U.S. government.
The Obama administration’s review also promised to examine the environmental costs of coal mining, potentially incorporating the social cost of carbon into those royalty calculations. The new executive order eliminates that concern.
On Oregon’s Pacific coast, a plan for a liquid natural gas export facility known as Jordan Cove could rise from the dead, as Trump prepares to appoint three new members to the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approves natural gas projects. According to reports, the appointees will likely include Robert Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and a pusher of policies friendly to fracking companies; Kevin McIntyre, head of the energy practice at Jones Day, a big law firm that represents energy companies, and Neil Chatterjee, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s advisor and his right-hand man in fighting the Clean Power Plan.
The commission, called FERC, was already notorious for approving nearly every natural gas project submitted for consideration. Jordan Cove was a rare exception: FERC rejected the proposal a year ago, stating that the company behind it, Veresen, had failed to line up buyers in Asia and that the proposed pipeline that would supply the facility, the Pacific Connector, was not in the public interest. If approved, the project would export gas obtained via hydraulic fracturing and would require the construction of a power plant that would become one of the state’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Ninety percent of the property owners along the pipeline route had refused offers from Veresen and its partner in pipeline building, Williams.
Trump issued an executive order in January that would expedite approvals for “high priority” infrastructure projects. And earlier this month Veresen CEO Don Althoff told Bloomberg, “the White House is going to work with us on getting through the permitting process quickly and efficiently. The message to us was hurry up – get going.”
Jody McCaffree has been fighting the Jordan Cove project for years, and her words could be echoed by any number of environmental activists grappling with Trump’s orders.
“Here we are twelve years later still having to volunteer incredible amounts of our time and energy saying the same things over and over again in these various permitting processes. This is time we will never get back,” she told The Intercept. However, she added, “We must fight on.”
Alongside Trump’s map of dirty energy, something else has emerged as well: a new geography of resistance. Legislation recently proposed in Massachusetts aims to get the state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, and California’s Senate leader Kevin de León introduced a similar bill last month. “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future,” he said in a statement after Trump’s election. The state has also pledged to maintain its strict vehicle emissions standards in opposition to Trump’s rollback of the federal standards.
Meanwhile, climate and environmental advocates are preparing to stand in the way of Trump via lawsuits and demonstrations. Organizers involved in resisting the Dakota Access pipeline have moved their fight to new spaces, starting a camp in Iowa branded as a “progressive think tank and resistance to the Trump administration.” Camps built to protest the Diamond Pipeline were recently established in Oklahoma. And the renewed fight against the Keystone XL will be infused with energy from Dakota Access veterans.
Ponca Nation member Mekasi Camp Horinek has fought all three pipelines. “I want to say thank you to the president for all the bad decisions that he’s making — for the bad cabinet appointments that he’s made and for awakening a sleeping giant. People that have never stood up for themselves, people that have never had their voices heard, that have never put their bodies on the line are now outraged,” he told The Intercept shortly after Trump signed his order reviving Keystone XL.
“I would like to say thank you to President Trump for his bigotry, for his sexism, for bringing all of us in this nation together to stand up and unite.”