Fossil fuel agenda: How Trump is reversing progress on climate and energy

The U.S. reached a number of climate and energy victories under President Obama, and President Trump may try to tear them down. 

Photo by Gage Skidmore, flickr.

President Trump has made clear he will do everything he can to reverse progress on climate change and energy. We look at how real the danger is and what he is already doing to hurt conservation.

The Trump Effects:

  1. Withdrawing from the world and abandoning our commitments
  2. Handcuffing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution—maybe permanently
  3. Open season for fossil fuel on public lands
  4. Fragile Arctic habitat could be back in the line of fire
  5. Drilling prioritized over polar bears and wildlands
  6. Attempts to undo a major climate measure
  7. Abandoning renewable energy, championing fossil fuels
  8. Business as usual for dirty energy that shortchanges taxpayers
  9. Back to ignoring climate impacts in land management

President Trump has said repeatedly that he does not "believe" in climate change, even suggesting that it is a "hoax" and a "money making industry." He sings the praises of oil, gas and coal while giving short shrift to the renewable energy we'll need to meet the nation's growing needs in a responsible way. In the coming weeks, Trump is expected to sign several executive orders that roll back key environmental rules and make it easier for polluters to call the shots.


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Make no mistake: Some of the most important achievements of the last eight years—including many that were Wilderness Society priorities—are officially in Trump's crosshairs. Given the number of anti-conservationists in Congress who can be expected to help the White House enact its agenda, we are entering a very dark period. It will be more important than ever to stand up and let our lawmakers know what is important to us.

As Trump tries to sketch out his agenda for lawmakers and the American public, keep in mind what his administration is really trying to do. Here is a look at some key climate and energy victories that will be targeted by President Trump and his allies in the months and years ahead—including some that are already actively under attack.


Obama Progress: Meaningful international goals for tackling climate change

The Trump Effect: Withdrawing from the world and abandoning our commitments

In December 2015, nearly 200 countries at the Paris climate change conference committed to reduce emissions and slow global warming. The U.S. agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2025—an ambitious and laudable goal to try and stem the most catastrophic effects of climate change. It was the culmination of years of hard diplomatic work by the Obama administration. 

President Trump repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he intends to "cancel" the Paris agreement, baselessly claiming that it gives foreign countries control of U.S. energy use (it doesn't)—and he wants to keep that promise. A little after Trump was inaugurated, Environmental Protection Agency transition chief Myron Ebell reiterated Trump's intention to withdraw from the deal. 

If the White House chose to break the agreement, it is not exactly clear how that would happen; Trump can't cancel the agreement per se, but he will have several options for either withdrawing the U.S.—a process Trump can officially start in November 2019—or simply refusing to live up to the commitments made by President Obama. Regardless of how he does it, pulling out of the Paris accord could trigger a chain reaction that makes other countries reconsider their commitments, as well as damaging diplomatic relations more broadly.


Obama Progress: A Clean Power Plan to cut emissions

The Trump Effect: Handcuffing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution—maybe permanently.

Perhaps President Obama's signature effort to address climate change is the Clean Power Plan, which empowers the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act. 

President Trump has repeatedly proposed to limit or eliminate the Clean Power Plan, and he could do it using any one of a number of methods. In February 2017, it was reported that Trump will soon sign an executive order to get the process started. He is expected to order EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to replace the Clean Power Plan with a different (and presumably weaker) rule, which would be a complex, years-long process.  

If this falls through, Trump could try several other methods to kill the Clean Power Plan. Right now, the plan is tied up in DC Circuit Court—but if it ever makes it to the Supreme Court, Trump-picked justice(s) could help kill it.  

If Trump wanted to go a step further and strip the EPA's emission-regulating authority permanently, he would have to ask that Congress write legislation to that effect. Unfortunately, members of Congress have already tried to do this many times. That legislative option could even prevent future presidents from undoing Trump's damage.

Photo by Mason Cummings (TWS)


Obama Progress: Some precious public lands acknowledged as "Too Wild to Drill"

The Trump Effect: Open season for fossil fuel on public lands

Under Obama, the rules of fossil fuel development on public lands improved yet remain tilted heavily in favor of industry. But a historic action to finally cancel most of the remaining oil and gas leases located in the Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana's Rocky Mountain Front and the cancellation of many leases in Colorado's Roan Plateau and Thompson Divide sent a powerful message that some places are simply "Too Wild to Drill." 

President Trump has been on the record for a while that his energy plan will prominently feature “opening federal lands for oil and gas production," and indeed, his Interior Department could be empowered to offer more oil, gas and coal leases on common ground that belongs to all Americans, despite the fact that oil and gas companies are already squatting on millions of acres. The Trump White House is in prime position to treat Our Wild like a piggy bank at the expense of the climate, even though it might not pay

In a move taken right from Trump’s fossil fuel playbook, Congress is currently trying to gut a rule that keeps fossil fuel interests in check when it comes to decisions about drilling, mining and logging on our public lands. Once a rule is repealed under the Congressional Review Act, as they are trying to do, it is nearly impossible to reinstate, and federal agencies are prohibited from creating a similar rule to replace the original down the line. If the provision passes Congress and Trump signs it into law, polluters could be calling the shots for a long, long time.


Obama Progress: Arctic Ocean removed from five-year drilling plan

The Trump Effect: Fragile Arctic habitat could be back in the line of fire

Near the very end of his administration, President Obama used a decades-old law to prevent new oil and gas leasing in most of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas as well as part of the Atlantic Ocean, helping to safeguard wildlife habitat and vital subsistence resources for coastal villages while underscoring the nation's commitment to fighting climate change. That indefinitely extended Obama's previous decision to remove the Arctic Ocean from the 2017-22 offshore oil and gas leasing program, an important step to protect the sensitive coastlines of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, also known as the Western Arctic Reserve. If a major oil spill occurred, which government officials say would be likely, these fragile places could suffer massive harm and take generations to recover. Removing the Arctic Ocean from the program also takes a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions off the table. 

Under a drill-first Trump administration, the Arctic Ocean is back in the line of fire (some previously said such a move would be "first off the bat," along with rolling back regulations on oil companies). Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has already said he supports reopening the Arctic Ocean immediately. That means leasing in the fragile Arctic ecosystems of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, where the Department of the Interior previously projected there was a 75 percent chance of at least one major oil spill resulting from development in the area. 

Photo by Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard.


Obama Progress: Arctic Refuge recommended for wilderness protection

The Trump Effect: Drilling prioritized over polar bears and wildlands

In 2014, President Obama made an official recommendation that Congress preserve nearly all of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, a step that would ensure oil and gas infrastructure never destroys the threatened coastal plain of one of our nation’s greatest wild places. It was a powerful statement about U.S. conservation priorities, and another step in rolling back the nationwide fossil fuel complex that contributes heavily to climate change. 

After just over a month of pro-drilling President Trump in the White House, Alaska’s congressional delegation and other politicians are emboldened. They are trying to seize the opportunity and pass legislation that would tap oil reserves in the Arctic Refuge, just as Sen. Lisa Murkowski promised would be a high priority. If President-elect Trump decides to champion such a proposal, we will immediately be in pitched battle to fight it. The only sliver of good news: With oil prices currently depressed, it would probably not be profitable to drill in the refuge.


Obama Progress: Cutting natural gas waste and methane pollution from oil and gas operations

The Trump Effect: Attempts to undo a major climate measure

A rule released late in the Obama administration aims to reduce natural gas waste and associated methane pollution from oil and gas operations on public lands, which is considered a major "blind spot" in our accounting of the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. If implemented correctly, it could reduce this waste by more than 40 percent

Like many of President Obama's climate and energy advances, this rule has already come under attack during the Trump administration. Using the little-mentioned Congressional Review Act, Trump-aligned politicians have passed legislation through the House that would repeal Obama's rule. It now awaits action in the Senate. If it wins approval there, President Trump is almost certain to sign it into law, officially repealing a rule we know will help our lands, climate and communities

If that legislation failed, experts say the Trump administration would be required to pick apart the reasoning behind the rule in order to roll it back at the executive level. The Trump administration could also simply refuse to enforce the rule, which is why we will be watching it vigilantly to make sure it is upheld and implemented. 

Photo by Mason Cummings (TWS).


Obama Progress: Renewable energy development balanced with land conservation

The Trump Effect: Abandoning renewable energy, championing fossil fuels

The Obama administration made great strides in meeting our growing energy needs without jeopardizing precious wildlands. Among them: a rule from the Bureau of Land Management that expedites wind and solar energy projects on less-sensitive public lands and minimizes environmental impacts from new energy infrastructure; and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which protects millions of acres of wild and vulnerable public land in California while setting aside other areas for clean energy development. These are vital pieces to meet our ambitious climate change goals. 

While President Trump is outspoken about wanting to drill for oil and gas on public lands, he often goes out of his way to bash renewable energy, which he has called "just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves.”  Under President Trump, the Bureau of Land Management, which finalized the aforementioned rules, could simply ignore the importance of planning for development in low-conflict areas. This might return us to developer-driven project siting that leads to applications scattered willy-nilly across the landscape. Fortunately, it wouldn't be easy: it can take years to challenge a finalized rule

More significantly, the advance of responsibly sited renewable energy isn’t something the Trump administration can simply reverse, no matter what the president may think of it. As former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy recently put it, “The train to a global clean energy future has already left the station.” Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have backed smart renewable energy development on public lands, and the broader renewable energy sector is growing fast.


Obama Progress: Reforming a long-broken federal coal program

The Trump Effect: Business as usual for dirty energy that shortchanges taxpayers

In early 2016, the Obama administration announced a pause on all new coal leasing on public lands, to be followed by a review of the federal coal program that would assess its true costs. This was a long-overdue step; for decades, coal producers have paid far below-market rates for the coal they take from federal land, leaving taxpayers on the hook for cleanup costs and enabling more greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. 

Trump is already expected to sign an executive order that rolls back Obama's coal reforms, including the pause on coal leasing on federal lands. The order could also shut down progress towards ensuring coal companies pay their fair share to taxpayers. The long-promised rejection of Obama's moratorium is part of Trump's fantastical campaign to revive the coal industry (not gonna happen). He is snuffing out an attempt to finally fix a broken program—an overhaul that’s been needed for more than three decades. Coal mining scars the landscape, damages the climate and offers little in terms of long-term stability for western communities in return. President Trump doesn't seem to care. 

Mason Cummings (TWS)


Obama Progress: Federal guidance to assess climate change impacts

The Trump Effect: Back to ignoring climate impacts in land management

Guidance released by the Obama administration on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) ensures that federal agencies fully address greenhouse gas emissions from energy projects on public lands—meaning that individual projects like oil and gas development will be subjected to appropriate scientific scrutiny. Prior to that, energy extraction on public lands had been a “blind spot” in our accounting of contributions to climate change.

Put simply, the Trump administration is likely to overlook these requirements even as the courts continue to require the agencies to develop this kind of information so the public can weigh in on leasing decisions. Trump has frequently railed against rules intended to protect the environment, and there is no reason to think this will be any different.

We believe the American public should know the consequences of leasing decisions made about the energy assets we all own.


Join us and "Stop Wilderness Attacks by Trump"

We have already told you about how we plan on holding President Trump accountable and repelling policies that would jeopardize Our Wild. But step one is staying vigilant, and not letting any of the Trump regime's anti-conservation attacks slip by us. 

That's why we recently formed the SWAT Team (Stop Wilderness Attacks by Trump). We have dedicated resources and team members to provide you regular updates with the most important stories of the week that we must hit back on. Whether they are trying to seize our public lands or drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we know that the Trump administration and its allies in Congress won’t hesitate to twist or suppress the facts in order to engineer the narrative they want.

As a member of our SWAT Team (Stop Wilderness Attacks by Trump) you’ll get the real story—not the "alternative facts"—and help us rapidly respond to the Trump regime.

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