People, planet, and the path ahead
Numerous oil rigs stand idle at the Midland County Line on Thursday, Nov. 17 in Midland, Texas. The U.S. Geological Survey said in a release Nov. 15 that the Wolfcamp Shale geologic formation in the Midland area contains an estimated 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, as well as vast shale oil deposits. While Donald Trump has called for reviving coal mining jobs, the main challenge to those jobs has come from low natural-gas prices rather than federal regulations.
Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP | Caption

On environment policy, Trump won't be the only driver

Patterns of thought

Barack Obama showed how a president can wield broad power over environmental policy. But with a majority of Americans concerned about ciimate change, other forces are also influential. 

For environmentalists and climate activists, the dangers of a Donald Trump presidency are myriad, particularly when his recent victory is combined with Republican Congress.

They worry about a withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and a rollback of Obama’s Clean Power plan; about increased drilling on public lands and a shift away from clean energy; about efforts to weaken regulations on pollution or fuel economy.

Still, power over environmental policy won’t be as lopsided as the surface appearance suggests.

Many of those outcomes are not easy to accomplish. Yes, by all visible signs it looks as if federal policy will take a sharp turn to toward less regulation and more fossil fuels. But that shift may bring into the spotlight other forces that influence environmental action and energy policy – the courts, public opinion, state laws, the Senate filibuster, and not least forces of the marketplace. All that is part of an American tradition of pluralism that goes beyond green issues.

“Our whole system of government is set up to make it easier to stay the course than to change course,” says Debbie Sease, senior lobbying director at the Sierra Club. “Every four years or so I give great thanks for that quality that the founding fathers built in.”

Among the questions environmental advocates are debating in the wake of Trump’s victory: Just how much does the president-elect care about the environmental realm?

Although he talked in his campaign about Paris and returning jobs to coal company and increased drilling, Trump spent far less time on those issues than on topics like immigration, health-care, jobs, and taxes. And there can be a political cost to any controversial effort.

“There’s no question there will be a regulatory rollback, the rhetoric will change dramatically, and climate change as an issue will not be as high on the agenda,” says Jody Freeman, director of the Environmental Law Program at Harvard University. “But we should be cautious and wait and see how dramatic the rollback will be… No administration can do everything at once. They’ll have to prioritize.”

Among the environmental issues that Trump specifically promised to do in his campaign: withdraw from the Paris climate agreement (he promised to “cancel” the landmark 2015 pact), roll back Obama’s “Clean Power Plan” limits on utility emissions, limit the streams and rivers governed by the Clean Water Act, and open up more public lands to fossil-fuel development, both for coal mining and increased drilling.

Some of those promises will be relatively easy to follow through on. Trump could, for instance, simply fail to deliver on US promises under the Paris agreement, and not give the promised funds to help poor countries lower their emissions. Lifting Obama’s moratorium on new coal leases on public lands, which was done by executive order, would also be relatively easy.

Diplomatic ripple-effects

But there are some caveats. On Paris, some climate activists say they hope Trump may soften his stance once he and his advisers are more aware of the potential diplomatic consequences of a public withdrawal and when he understands more about the agreement, which was the first time such a pact really required other nations to step up their commitments.

“To pull back from Paris only harms the United States by … encouraging other nations to do less,” says Jeremy Symons, an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, noting as well that ceding clean-energy leadership to other countries could have a cost in job creation.

Trump could also go with a less inflammatory approach than publicly withdrawing from Paris, emphasizing his dislike of regulation but looking to market forces and clean-energy investments to drive emissions reductions, says Professor Freeman at Harvard.

“There’s so much unknown about what he might do,” says Freeman. “You could imagine him taking a step back from the brink and reconsidering what the best course is when he realizes the diplomatic cost of dramatically trying to upset the Paris agreement.”

Market forces could also play a steadying role when it comes to energy development.

Lifting the moratorium on new coal leases on public lands is easy for Trump to do, but cheap natural gas prices, not government regulation, have been the major factor in limiting coal development. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acknowledged last week that, despite the GOP rhetoric on bringing coal jobs back, new policies may not mean a return of coal jobs, since it’s a “private-sector activity.”

“The environmental community did not turn the country to the direction of clean energy versus dirty coal strictly on the power of public sentiment,” says Ms. Sease of the Sierra Club. “It capitalized on the power of market forces, and those market forces don’t go away.”

Private-sector forces

Market forces may also make it harder to reverse course on clean energy, which has been a big source of jobs and is popular with consumers as well as many in the private sector.

Meanwhile, Trump or a GOP Congress may roll back a number of environmental rules and regulations. Among the top ones are the Clean Power Plan and the “Waters of the United States” rule – which interprets the Clean Water Act as applying to all waters that flow into navigable rivers, including seasonal streams and connected wetlands.

The Clean Power Plan rests on a landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases could be considered pollutants and regulated by the Clean Air Act, and the “Waters of the United States” rule – reviled by some conservatives who see it as an overreach – gets to the heart of how much power the Clean Water Act has.

Republicans in Congress have in the past introduced a whole slew of other bills and riders that would block or weaken environmental rules.

But environmental groups caution that none of these rules can be rolled back with the stroke of a pen, and they’re geared up for increased legal battles to fight such attempts.

“The president doesn’t get to rule by fiat,” said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a briefing with reporters. These rules were established over a long period, and with significant research, public comments, and court findings, he and others note, and any defense in court of attempts to roll them back will require the same process, including convincing the court that the research underpinning the rules is no longer a good basis for them.

“There isn’t a lot that the president can do unilaterally, because we have this armature of law to protect the public from wild swings in policy, and to protect business, which always asks the most for stability,” adds Mr. Goldston.

Another potential power check is Senate Democrats. Congressional Republicans have made no secret of their desire to weaken environmental regulations, but many actions could be blocked by Democrats in the Senate. Those include defunding the EPA or clean-energy research, or passing laws like the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny), which would mandate that almost all new regulation be approved by Congress and signed by the president and which would dramatically reduce the future ability of the EPA to evolve its regulations as science develops.

That power for Senate Democrats will change if the GOP decides to do away with the filibuster, but for now, the 47 Senate Democrats can be an effective block against the most damaging legislation – though they’ll need to choose their battles, especially when riders they dislike are attached to necessary omnibus bills.

Public opinion

One other major force environmentalists say shouldn’t be discounted: public opinion. High-profile protests in recent weeks have helped to shift the conversation around the Dakota Access Pipeline. Such protests could get more frequent if Americans feel public lands are under attack, or clean air and water are threatened, by actions of a Trump administration. Support for all three is widespread and fairly bipartisan, as is support for clean energy.

“When there is a large gap between what an elected official is doing and public sentiment, it’s hard to sustain,” says Sease. “We really don’t think the majority of people who voted for Donald Trump really were voting for dirtier air, dirtier water, dirtier energy…. Part of our job is to prevent damage, expose the agenda, and expose the consequences of that agenda.”

For now, many environmental groups will be closely watching what transpires, hoping that action falls short of rhetoric, and ready to challenge what they see as overreach in court and keep the public informed.

“All I can say for sure is that they’re in for a fight,” Symons says of the Trump administration. “We’re going to be ready, and that’s going to require defenders to stand up and be counted in Congress. It’s going to require a robust litigation defense if and when the administration tries to bypass the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and prematurely roll back [regulations] without the due process. And it is going to take education mobilization of the public. We’ll be acting on all three parts.”

Experts see lessons to be learned from the past. Environmental protections have been under attack before, under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, and under House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Some of their efforts were successful, but many weren’t. Efforts by President Bush to reconsider the standard for arsenic in drinking water, and to weaken the roadless rules in certain areas met significant roadblocks and were ultimately unsuccessful, notes Freeman. And Anne Gorsuch, Reagan’s controversial and aggressively anti-regulation first EPA Administrator, was forced to resign amid charges of mismanagement.

“History tells us that when these administrations overreach they get into trouble,” says Freeman.