During the 2016 presidential race, candidate Donald Trump expressed his dislike of environmental regulations, saying that they were strangling domestic energy producers and especially those in the coal sector. By extension, he said that global warming was a “Chinese hoax” and that his administration would back out of the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Accords. Was this just campaign rhetoric or can he be taken at his word?
As this story was being filed, the president-elect nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be the next administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has been a sharp critic of EPA and represents a state with deep ties to oil and gas.
By now, most people realize that Trump’s words are to be taken with a grain of salt and that anything he says should be watered down. The same is probably true for his environmental statements and it is particularly true given that his daughter Ivanka has become a bit of an advocate for dealing with climate change. Still, the president-elect has endeared himself to the coal sector and he won by huge margins in the coal-producing states of Kentucky, West Virginia and Wyoming.
“EPA’s mission is a nonpartisan mission,” said Gina McCarthy, the administrator for the Obama EPA as reported by the Christian Science Monitor, which hosted an event. “It’s just about public health. People like clean air and clean water and healthy land.”
Indeed, one of the tenants that this writer has laid out in the pages of Environmental Leader is that technology is enabling the evolution to cleaner fuels, which are in demand by the public if those choices are cost effective ones. Policymakers often fall into line, enabling the people to get what they desire.
For their part, corporations have taken the lead, making it easier for the Obama administration to push for cleaner air and water. Many of the high-tech firms, for example, have come out strongly for tougher carbon restrictions.
In an earlier talk with this reporter, Christine Todd Whitman, who is also a former EPA administrator and New Jersey Governor, said that the terms “global warming” and “climate change” have become too politicized. She feels, instead, that the focus should be on cleaner air and water that everyone favors.
Pollution has an overall negative impact. For example, dirty air leads to poor eyesight and to heavy breathing while it also has an effect on skin care, making us all age faster. Emphasizing clean air, Whitman insists, shouldn’t sidewind current attempts to curb carbon.
To that end, she says that carbon must have a price — whether it is a tax on the front end or a penalty on the back end. That would make cleaner energy sources such as nuclear energy competitive in the market while also creating jobs and wealth in the communities where the components are assembled.
“Ultimately, it means penalizing companies that emit too much pollution or putting a price on carbon,” says Whitman, who is also the co-chair of the CASEnergy Coalition focused on bringing nuclear power to the forefront of the global warming fight. “The regulatory structure does not now give an added value to clean power.”
Whitman recently told Morning Call that if Trump wants to shrink the size of the EPA that he could do that through the budget process. He could also ease up on enforcement, she added, although as it stands now the agency tries to work with companies that may be afoul of the law before it would crack down. The goal is to make the workplace safer and the environment cleaner.
What about the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Accords?
Scuttling the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan that would require 32% cuts in carbon emissions by 2030 could take place in two forms: appointing a supreme court justice who would be the fifth vote to kill it or submitting a rule-making to essentially nullify it, which would go through the same type of litigation that the current carbon proposal is enduring.
As for the carbon-cutting Paris accord, it has been signed by 190 nations. Now that it has been ratified, countries must submit their plans to reduce carbon emissions every five years, although their blueprints are not legally binding. The United States and China, which are the two biggest emitters, are major signatories.
To withdraw from the climate treaty, the United States must give notice. The good news is that the United States is well on its way to achieving the goals set by both the Paris accord and the Clean Power Plan. It’s done so mostly by changing out older coal-fired units for those that run on natural gas, although the US has invested heavily in renewable energy since 2009.
Ironically, the re-awakening of the U.S. economy since the Great Recession has been less about public investment in renewable fuels and more about private investment in shale gas development that has led to new capital formation. And there will be 930,000 shale-gas driven jobs by 2030 and 1.4 million by 2040, says PriceWaterHouseCoopers.
If Hillary Clinton had won, environmental policy would be on autopilot. But Trump is obligated in some measure to change things up, given his campaign promises. It seems that he’ll curtail EPA’s reach a bit but that he won’t upend altogether the environmental strides that the current administration had made toward reducing carbon emissions.
But that’s merely conjecture, which means we’ll know more once he appoints people to key cabinet positions and once the incoming Congress starts writing bills. The Pruitt nomination to EPA is a sign that he will have an easier regulatory program than that of Obama. Nevertheless, environmental leaders should proceed as they have been given that administrations come and go.