President Donald Trump has already taken bold steps to undo the climate agenda of his predecessor. He has announced gag orders and contract holds on the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, as well as executive orders to expedite completion of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.
While Trump has made it clear he intends to undo many environmental regulations, not every policy President Barack Obama put in place can be easily overturned. So, what is within reach for the president and Congress, regarding federal environmental policies? Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, has a few answers:
Q: Many of the climate agenda items that President Obama put in place were done with executive orders. Can the new president just get rid of all those?
A: For the most extensive and comprehensive policies, [like] the Clean Power Plan and fuel economy standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, it's not so simple. That's because these rules have actually gone through a very long public notice and comment process. [To] rescind them and then replace them will require something similar, and they require that the president do something. For example, he can't just rescind the Clean Power Plan and refuse to replace it with any kind of measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, which is the Clean Power Plan's focus.
Q: President Trump wants to expedite the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline. What exactly is he able to do?
A: He's trying to expedite the process in two ways: One, is to say, speed it up. Two, is to signal [his approval], so once [they] get through the review, the outcome should be that [the agencies] approve them. But he can't just order that result without a relatively lengthy review process — and you can bet that there will be lots of legal oversight from environmental groups, from the tribes that are quite interested in what happens to their land and so forth. So, none of this is going to happen immediately.
Q: What about the Clean Power Plan, the central plank of President Obama's climate action strategy?
A: There's a legal challenge right now pending in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals that says that EPA went too far in its efforts to regulate the electricity sector … The DC Circuit has taken the case. I suspect that the next move on the Trump administration's part will be to notify the DC Circuit that the Department of Justice does not intend to defend the Clean Power Plan and may, in fact, intend to withdraw the rule — and that will throw the litigation into chaos.
Q: Auto emission standards are another powerful way in which greenhouse gas emissions can be controlled, and Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the EPA, is not committing to continuing them. What do you think will happen here?
A: This is a really important part of the United States’ efforts to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation emissions have now surpassed emissions from the electricity sector as the single largest source of United States greenhouse gas emissions, and to address those emissions, EPA adopted standards that apply to 2017 to 2025 model-year automobiles. The Trump administration has threatened to rescind that rule, as well.
But here's how this gets really complicated: California, under the Clean Air Act, has its own power to issue greenhouse gas emissions standards for vehicles. It can only do so if it has a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency. So, if the federal government rescinds its rules, California's rules can kick in and take their place, and because California is so big, that's a big chunk of the national auto market. So ... will the EPA rescind California's waiver? Or going forward, for new passenger automobile standards, will it refuse to grant California permission? It will be an interesting question whether the Republicans’ commitment to states’ rights is stronger than its opposition to environmental policy or vice versa.
Q: During the Obama administration there was a recalibration of the whole energy picture, especially in the rise of renewable power. Can this be rolled back easily?
A: No, I don't think we're going to see a change in market trends that have led to a very dramatic reduction in the cost of renewable power, and, as a result, a large expansion of renewable power across the United States and across the globe. A few forces ... beyond the control of the president are leading to those changes. One is that a lot of states are requiring that their utilities purchase renewal power or create it themselves; two, a massive investment by the Chinese in renewable energy has led to big price drops. Those things are not going to go away.
There is a big question about whether the Trump administration will continue to support tax credits for renewable energy. Those have also been really key to getting investments in the renewable sector. I'd be surprised if there is legislation to roll those back, but we may see the ending of them once they expire.
Q: How concerned as an environmental law professor are you with the landscape, as it seems to be unfolding?
A: I think that this is the single biggest assault we've ever seen against environmental policies. The Reagan administration in the '80s went pretty hard after EPA, but I'm stunned, frankly, so far, at what appear to be overtly hostile acts, like gagging EPA scientists and other officials from being able to speak to the press or engage with social media … This appears to be a full-scale assault on every conceivable environmental policy and on even the dissemination of information about environmental problems. We could even see the National Oceanic [and] Atmospheric Administration's research on climate change — really important satellite data that gets collected and so forth — eliminated by this administration. It is extremely alarming.