March 29, 2017

Directing the Anger Over Trump’s Climate Executive Orders

Every environmentalist in the United States (and presumably a whole bunch elsewhere) is even angrier with Donald Trump after yesterday’s Executive Order on energy and climate than they were before. Yes, that’s possible.

They shouldn’t be, for two reasons.

First, none of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying any attention to what Donald Trump has been saying since he became a candidate. The Executive Order is merely Trump delivering on a small piece of  what he said he would do, and everything in it became inevitable on November 8.

Second, environmentalists should be just as angry with Barack Obama, who ignored climate change and did almost nothing about it until late in his second term. By delaying action so long, he made his climate legacy especially vulnerable to this sort of dismantling. The regulatory measures are either still subject to litigation (which makes them extremely easy to undo) or are so new that they have not had time to get baked into the system. When the private sector has made years’ worth of decisions assuming that the regulations are the law of the land (especially concerning the long-term, capital intensive actions at issue here) the effect of gutting those regulations is repeal in name only.

The Executive Order lists 18 separate actions for the chopping block. Some Presidential Memoranda/Executive Orders, reports from the Office of the President, and agency guidance documentscould be axed no matter how long they had been in place, though almost all of those came from the second Obama term. This includes the guidance telling agencies how they should consider climate change in NEPA analyses, which the Administration did not get around to issuing until 2016 even though it was responding to a petition filed in 2008. Only one of these (the 2010 technical document that announced the social cost of carbon) is dated from the President’s first term.

Regulationsformal agency actions that, unlike Presidential actions and agency guidance, cannot be undone by the stroke of a penalso did not arrive until late in Obama’s second term, and are too new to have the advantage of incumbency. The Executive Order targets three separate regulations and one other action relating to power plants (the Clean Power Plan and ancillary matters), along with five relating to oil and gas operations. Every single one of these is dated 2015 or 2016.  

Throwing in the Interior Department’s 2016 moratorium on coal leasingwhich was imposed so that they could perform a comprehensive analysis of how such leasing affects U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and is still being preparedmakes ten separate federal climate actions that are vulnerable precisely because they are of such recent vintage.   

Also note that the Executive Order targets do not include the regulations that came so late in 2016 that they are subject to revocation by Congress under the Congressional Review Act, which has already axed one of those and is threatening several others.

So while it is easy to blame Donald Trumpwho clearly does not understand the first thing about climate changehow much more of the responsibility for this rests with Barack Obama? Why did someone who most certainly understands the enormous risks of climate change postpone doing anything about them until the end of his tenure when they could most easily be undone by his successor?

History will judge.