What does the executive order mean for the climate? Not much

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President Donald Trump’s long-awaited executive order on climate policy vastly remakes the executive branch approach to climate-change risk, adaptation and mitigation. Whereas the Obama administration was focused on reducing emissions and managing climate risks, the Trump administration is executing program changes that suggest such concerns were folly.

It’s a substantial policy overhaul, prompting the executive branch to reconsider seven regulations or guidance documents that pertain to reducing emissions from the power sector and fossil-fuel development or considering climate risk in federal policy. The order rolls back regulations on oil and gas; lifts the moratorium on federal coal leasing; reconsiders the much-maligned social cost of carbon estimate of climate damages; and requests that agencies abandon the practice of evaluating climate impacts when considering regulations, land-use decisions or new programs or projects.

But at its heart is remaking President Barack Obama’s regulations on coal facilities in the electric power sector. A major source of anguish in the coal community and among Trump’s supporters were two Environmental Protection Act regulations that would make it nearly impossible for the power sector to increase reliance on coal.

  1. A “new source performance standard” required that no new coal facility be built without expensive and unproven carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology.
  2. Separately, the Clean Power Plan pushed states to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from the power sector by about a third below 2005 levels within 25 years.

Both pieces of regulation currently are working their way through the courts, though the Supreme Court offered an unprecedented stay on the Clean Power Plan to prevent it from going into effect. Trump advises the EPA to rewrite both of these rules. This isn’t the outright elimination that many expected, and there’s a good reason why.

A 2007 Supreme Court decision directed the EPA to address greenhouse-gas emissions if those emissions proved to be a threat to public health and welfare. In 2009, the EPA finalized its “endangerment finding,” a regulatory declaration that emissions of greenhouse gases contribute to factors that threaten the public. Taken together, the EPA must take steps to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. An order to rewrite Obama’s climate regulations puts the EPA on the slow and methodical road to issuing a new regulation; in the interim, coal has an opportunity to see if it can fight its way back into the power sector.

If greenhouse-gas policy is in flux, what does this executive order mean for the climate? Probably not much.

Government policy to limit greenhouse-gas emissions has, to-date, been written as though the private sector were incapable of reducing emissions without bureaucratic intervention. The prior administration was certainly no exception, issuing rules to reduce climate emissions from the power sector, vehicles, industrial use and even household appliances. The regulatory onslaught suggested that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions was a pre-eminent government priority and that the market needs the influence of regulation to respond accordingly.

Such an assumption is patently wrong. What we’ve learned in the last decade from the fracking boom, precipitously dropping prices for wind and solar, increased urbanization, technology adoption, automation and a wide variety of additional trends is that the free market can reduce emissions in the absence of government policy even if it doesn’t need to.

So before heeding the claims of the environmentalist left that this executive order and the president’s policies more generally will set the United States on an unacceptable carbon-emissions trajectory, be mindful that the private sector is hard at work offering incidental carbon emissions that meet or exceed the goals of Obama-era policies.

This latest executive order, coupled with substantial cuts to some of our core environmental and risk-management programs in the president’s budget, suggests that the administration’s eagerness to remake federal greenhouse-gas policy may yet prove to be shortsighted. While there is considerable and justifiable debate over whether to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through federal policy, a clear-eyed assessment of climate risk, like any other risk, remains an indispensable fiduciary responsibility of the federal government.

As the White House rethinks carbon and climate policy, the pressure falls to Congress to serve as ballast. Conservatives may be deeply suspicious of government-expanding approaches to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, but they are equally suspicious of unwise, uninformed government spending. There is ample opportunity to liberate the private sector from regulatory overkill, while providing federal agencies the information they need to handle climate risks appropriately.

Just last week, 17 Republicans released a resolution to use “our tradition of American ingenuity, innovation, and exceptionalism” to address climate change. With bicameral majorities, perhaps conservatives will find their voice and offer an authentic, principled counterpoint to tackle that challenge.


Image by Evan El-Amin

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