Trump's new executive orders will cut Obama's climate change policies

Juliet Eilperin,Steven Mufson
Tuesday 21 February 2017 16:27 GMT
(Getty Images)

President Donald Trump is preparing executive orders aimed at reversing Obama-era policies on climate and water pollution, according to individuals briefed on the measures.

While both directives will take time to implement, they will send an unmistakable signal that the new administration is determined to promote fossil-fuel production and economic activity even when those activities collide with some environmental safeguards. Individuals familiar with the proposals asked for anonymity to describe them in advance of their announcement, which could come as soon as this week.

One executive order, aimed at bolstering American energy independence, will instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting the 2015 regulation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions from existing electric utilities. It also instructs the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing.

A second order will instruct the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to revamp a 2015 rule, known as the Waters of the United States rule, that applies to 60 percent of the water bodies in the country. That regulation - issued under the 1972 Clean Water Act, which gives the federal government authority over not only major water bodies but also the wetlands, rivers and streams that feed into them - restricts development as well as some farming operations on the grounds that these activities could pollute the smaller or intermittent bodies of water or choke them off altogether.

Trump has joined many industry groups in criticising these rules as examples of the federal government exceeding its authority and curbing economic growth. While any move to undo these policies will spark new legal battles and entail work within the agencies that could take as long as a year and a half to finalise, the orders could affect investment decisions within the utility, mining, agriculture and real estate sectors, as well as activities on the ground.

Trump, who signed legislation last week that nullified a recent regulation prohibiting surface-mining operations from dumping waste in nearby waterways, said he was eager to support coal miners who had backed his presidential bid. “The miners are a big deal,” he said Thursday. “I've had support from some of these folks right from the very beginning, and I won't forget it.”

Bloomberg reported several elements of the executive orders Friday.

The greenhouse-gas limits on existing power plants, dubbed the Clean Power Plan, represented a central components of President Barack Obama's climate agenda. The regulations, which were put on hold by the Supreme Court and are being weighed by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, direct every state to form detailed plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from such sources as coal-fired power plants, enough to decrease carbon pollution by about one-third by 2030, compared with 2005 levels.

Trump repeatedly criticised these and other rules aimed at reducing fossil-fuel use as an attack on the U.S. coal industry. Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who served on Trump's EPA transition team, said the president “is fulfilling his campaign promise” by directing key agencies to shift course. Ebell warned, however, that undoing these rules “will take time. It could take days, months and years.”

One measure - lifting the moratorium on federal coal leasing - could take immediate effect. That freeze has been in effect since December 2015, and last month the Interior Department proposed major changes to a program that guides coal exploration and production across 570 million publicly owned acres.

Days before Obama left office, the Interior Department issued a report saying the federal government should explore options that include charging a higher royalty rate to companies, factoring in the climate impact of the coal being burned through an additional charge to firms and setting an overall carbon budget for the nation's coal leasing permits. But the new administration has expressed little interest in pursuing these policies and appears to be opening up the option of coal leasing again without any preconditions.

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The House has already passed legislation that would eliminate a BLM rule curbing the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations on federal land. The resolution, which needs Senate and presidential approval to take effect, uses the 1996 Congressional Review Act to reverse one of the final rules the Obama administration issued. While Trump administration officials have discussed whether to address methane regulation in the upcoming executive order, it may not be included in light of Congress's recent action.

Separately, Trump and his deputies are reopening a question of water policy that has bedevilled government officials from both parties for two decades. Two Supreme Court decisions that came down during the George W. Bush administration, in 2001 and 2006, spurred uncertainty over exactly which bodies of water fall under the federal government's jurisdiction. The Bush administration worked on drafting regulations to address the issue, but once Obama took office the EPA began rewriting them. The current rule gives the federal government wide latitude to protect smaller tributaries as well as some, such as wetlands, that may be dry periodically, on the grounds that they still need to be preserved as critical water supplies.

But groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation argue that the new restrictions could require farmers to pay significant fees to gain federal permission for filling in areas on their property and could halt some operations altogether.

Hunter and angler groups, however, have expressed concern about any rollback of the rule, which they say will preserve wetlands and other habitat that is crucial for outdoor recreation.

“If they have a better way to do it, we're all for it,” said Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But we want to make sure the wetlands and streams covered in the Obama rule can be covered in whatever they develop as a replacement. That's our bottom line.”

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