Donald Trump’s hostility towards the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, in a twisted way, makes perfect sense. The Republican president believes climate change is a conspiracy cooked up by the Chinese; he reflexively opposes any policy his predecessor supports; and Trump has no real interest in helping the United States compete internationally in the area of clean energy.
And so, in March, the president issued an executive order instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to “review” the policy that intends to reduce carbon pollution from U.S. power plants. Today, as the Washington Post reports, the far-right officials who lead Trump’s EPA took the next step.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a proposed rule Tuesday that would repeal sweeping regulation aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from existing U.S. power plants.
The move, aimed at bolstering the nation’s struggling coal industry, will trigger an immediate court fight and could result in months, if not years of litigation.
And it’s that second part of the excerpt that stands out. The Trump administration took a deliberate step backwards today, but the policy implications aren’t cut and dry. It’s not as if power plants were working under one framework yesterday, which will be entirely different from the one that’ll be in place tomorrow.
In fact, the Supreme Court has already blocked implementation of the Obama-era policy. The Trump administration’s new rule is really just a vague proposal to go in a more regressive direction, but we have no idea what the details of the new policy look like, or when we’ll even see them. A New York Times report added that Trump’s EPA intends to consider a new rule “at some point.”
All the while, the administration will try to fend off a series of lawsuits from environmental advocates, who may very well have some success in preserving Obama-era safeguards.
Vox’s David Roberts had a good piece today, explaining that Trump, Pruitt, and their allies may find this endeavor more difficult than they fully appreciate.
In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts v. EPA, that carbon dioxide qualifies as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. If the EPA determines that carbon is a danger to public health, the court said, it must regulate carbon to reduce that danger. In 2009, the EPA issued its Endangerment Finding, demonstrating (based on intensive research and documentation) that greenhouse gases are in fact a danger to public health.
The Supreme Court ruling plus the Endangerment Finding mean that the EPA is legally obligated to regulate carbon in such a way as to meliorate the danger it poses to public health.
The only way EPA can escape that core legal obligation is to overturn the Endangerment Finding. Some conservative denialist groups, recognizing that fact, are pressuring Pruitt to attempt just that. Doing so, however, would likely prove impossible. It would have to pass legal review, and the simple fact is that the science overwhelmingly supports the EPA’s case.
Until denialists put together a much stronger scientific case (anything can happen), the debate over carbon policy is entirely shaped by the legal expectation that the EPA will meaningfully regulate carbon…. The fact is, the EPA is legally obligated not just to reduce carbon from “stationary sources” like power plants, but to meliorate the danger it poses – that is, to reduce it significantly, in a way that meaningfully reduces risks.
Trump, Pruitt, and their allies seem to be under the impression that they can simply scrap Obama-era environmental protections as if they were flipping a switch: Obama said yes; they’ll say no.
The details aren’t nearly that simple.