US president Donald Trump has signed an executive order aiming to dismantle Obama-era climate policies and revive the coal industry.
The six-page document, published on March 28th, is titled, “Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth”. The full text is below. Trump launched it at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters, flanked by officials and coal miners.
Carbon Brief rounds up the extensive media coverage of the order, spanning analysis of the announcement and editorials reacting to the news.
The Trump order does not address climate science. However, by rolling back US efforts to address climate change and respond to its impacts, it crystallises the administration’s position on the topic.
Speaking at the launch event, Trump made it clear that he has no intention of meeting the commitments his predecessor made to cut carbon emissions, “turning denials of climate change into national policy”, the New York Times writes.
The move “sends a clear signal domestically and internationally that [Trump] does not believe climate change to be anywhere near the crisis that Obama identified”, says the Hill. Instead, Trump says dismantling his predecessor’s climate change policies will end a “crushing attack” on the US economy, reports Politico.
At a pre-launch briefing on the order, the Guardian asked if Trump accepted the science of manmade climate change. In response, a senior White House official replied: “Sure, yes, I guess, I think the president understands the disagreement over the policy response and you’ll see that in the order tomorrow. We’re taking a different path.”
This exchange last night on climate change between a journalist and an unnamed White House official is, well, you read it yourself… pic.twitter.com/zaLhnEwVER
— Leo Hickman (@LeoHickman) March 28, 2017
The Trump order makes the US a “climate laughing stock”, says Michael Grunwald, senior writer at Politico. A Washington Post editorial says: “Children studying his presidency will ask, ‘How could anyone have done this?’ Climate science is complicated, but the basics are easy enough for those schoolchildren to understand.”
Writing at Vox under the headline: “The most damaging part of Trump’s climate change order is the message it sends”, David Roberts says: “The signal it sends to the world [that climate change does not matter to the administration] is dismal and devastating: a blow to America’s ‘soft power,’ a stain on its record, and an impediment to all future international cooperation.”
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, energy investor Paul H Tice welcomes Trump’s order and says he now “needs to target the EPA’s 2009 ‘endangerment finding,’ which labeled CO2 as a pollutant”. Tice argues that “much of the scientific data upon which it was predicated – chiefly, the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – was already dated by the time of its publication and arguably not properly peer-reviewed as federal law requires”.
The order is framed as a push for energy independence, based on “clean and safe development of our nation’s vast energy resources”. In contrast, it is against “regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation”.
On Monday, ahead of the order, the New York Times quoted various energy economists arguing the order falls short of Trump’s aims to increase the nation’s energy independence. This is because the US already largely relies on domestic sources for its coal and natural gas.
The Economist argues that despite his “assault on environmentalism”, the order “won’t bring energy independence, environmental protection, or jobs”.
The order instructs all government agencies “to review all of their rules, policies, and guidances and see if there’s anything that inhibits the development of domestic energy production”, explains Vox, setting a timeline for change within 180 days.
At the launch event, Trump claimed: “We’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal.”
However, Trump’s expansive claims on reviving fossil fuel production have been received with scepticism. (See below for more detail on the coal industry.) As Axios explains:
“These changes are unlikely to have an outsized effect, but could influence drilling and production decisions a little. Easing regulations matters much less than fundamentals…Coal stocks could get a bump from the order…But he probably can’t really turn things around.”
The decision to launch the order at the US EPA headquarters has “ruffled feathers” at the agency, reports Axios in a second article. It adds: “Undoing rules is a careful and time-consuming bureaucratic slog, so resistance among career staff to the Trump-Pruitt agenda could complicate the effort even further.”
The Trump order runs counter to the views of the vast majority of Americans, writes Climate Central, pointing to surveys by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. These show 75% of Americans favour regulating carbon pollution, it says, adding that another poll from the Yale group found 62% of Trump voters support taxing or regulating carbon pollution, or both.
Clean Power Plan
The order’s “main target” is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, reports Reuters. The plan, designed to cut emissions from power stations in the US to 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, has been mired in legal disputes and is currently suspended pending a court decision.
(In a related development, the administration on Tuesday filed a motion asking for that court process to be suspended. Jack Lienke, senior attorney at the New York University Institute for Policy Integrity says the move is an attempt to avoid having to set out the administration’s legal position on the Clean Power Plan, which could be seen to pre-judge its review of the plan.)
While it isn’t possible for Trump to roll back the Clean Power Plan at the stroke of a pen, his order initiates a formal review of the policy, notes the Associated Press. Elsewhere, Vox looks at the “tricky, year-long process” that will be needed to repeal the Clean Power Plan.
Even if Trump succeeds in tearing up the plan, the impact on the power sector is unclear. The shift away from coal power is likely to continue regardless, says the Wall Street Journal. And the clean energy sector is “forecast to boom” even without the Clean Power Plan, says Bloomberg.
— Tom Kerr (@Kerrclimate) March 29, 2017
Nevertheless, a Wall Street Journal editorial endorses the order, saying it is “a welcome return to regulatory modesty”. It adds: “As for climate change, President Trump’s order will have the same practical effect on rising temperatures as the Clean Power Plan: none.”
The New York Post‘s editorial echoes this view, saying Trump’s orders does not “doom the planet — because the Obama policies weren’t saving it.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times notes that the “problem for Mr Trump and Mr Pruitt [the EPA administrator] is that, if they get rid of this plan, they are legally required to come up with another one.”
The Hill reports comments from New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman: “We’re very confident that the EPA cannot simply dismantle the CPP and leave nothing in its place.” Schneiderman is part of a coalition of 17 Democratic attorneys general and city attorneys considering what legal actions could be taken to block Trump’s order.
Separately, the order also asks that CO2 standards for new coal plants be reviewed, says Vox. The rules currently make it impossible to build new coal plants, unless they are fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Vox notes:
“No matter what approach the EPA takes, however, it’s unlikely utilities will be building many new coal plants soon – especially since natural gas is so cheap.”
Several other Obama-era climate actions are revoked by the Trump order. These include rules to curb methane emissions from oil and gas production, reports Reuters, as well as guidance instructing government agencies to factor climate change into environmental reviews, says Vox.
Also on the chopping block is Obama’s executive order on preparing the US for the impacts of climate change, his wider climate action plan and a strategy on cutting methane emissions.
Social cost of carbon
Potentially one of the most consequential aspects of the order is its request for a “review” of the social cost of carbon, a figure that underpins many US climate regulations, as Carbon Brief explained earlier this year in a detailed Q&A.
As Inside Climate News notes, Trump cannot legally scrap the existing social cost of carbon, since agencies are legally required to consider the full costs and benefits of their regulations, including the climate impacts.
Nevertheless, advocates fear the review could cut the social cost of carbon from its current $37 per tonne of CO2 central figure, down to single digits, says the Atlantic. It adds this could be achieved “by forcing it to account only for carbon’s social cost to the US” and by changing the discount rate.
As a Bloomberg preview noted earlier this week, the executive order asks that the social cost of carbon be reviewed based on 2003 regulatory guidance issued under the Bush administration. This guidance suggests impacts considered for regulatory cost-benefit analysis should be restricted to the US, while global impacts “should be reported separately”.
However, the 2003 document also calls for the use of low discount rates, in cases with intergenerational impacts over long time horizons. This would include climate change. If this advice is followed, it would likely fail to produce the low social cost of carbon estimates expected.
— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) March 29, 2017
For more detail on the legal and scientific debate over the social cost of carbon, refer to the Carbon Brief Q&A. For instance, the Trump order instruction to withdraw technical guidance on the social cost of carbon could leave the government in legal hot water, one expert told Carbon Brief.
This week’s executive order also takes steps to revive the US coal industry.
The order will rescind a ban on coal leasing on federal lands, says Reuters. This will remove a moratorium put in place by Obama in 2016 on new federal coal leases until they could review and revamp the program, explains Vox in an article breaking down the key components of the order.
The practical impact will be limited in the short term, Vox notes, with a coal-supply glut meaning mining companies are not currently pursuing new federal leases. “The big question is how Trump handles the results of that review and whether he alters the leasing program to try to get a better deal for taxpayers in the future,” Vox says.
However a new Vox article published on Wednesday notes that the review has now been cancelled, with US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke calling it “expensive and unnecessary”. “In short, this looks like the worst-case scenario for the federal coal leasing program,” says Vox. “Comprehensive reform is out the window, replaced by a politically appointed board that will set prices behind closed doors.”
On MSNBC, journalist Cal Perry notes: “We don’t rely on coal anymore.” He referenced a company’s recent decision to shut two coal plants in Ohio, due to them not being economically viable in the face of cheap natural gas.
“We’re looking now at coal being the third, the number three, energy source in this country,” he said. “That hasn’t always been true. Used to be number one.”
A piece in Bloomberg Politics published on Monday argued this decreasing demand for coals means the executive order will fail to save mining jobs, despite Trump’s promises that “the miners are coming back”.
Similarly, the Independent quotes Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and the United Nations Special Envoy on climate change, saying rescinding regulations on health and markets is not going to put miners back to work. “Market forces, including consumer preferences and technological advancement, are the primary reason for the surge in cleaner forms of energy,” he says.
Another piece in Bloomberg Markets points out Trump’s steps to boost the declining coal industry won’t have an impact until years after he has left office. In an interview in the Guardian this week, meanwhile, US coal boss Robert Murray says he warned Trump to “temper his expectations” on coal-mining jobs. “He can’t bring them back,” says Murray.
In a Financial Times’s “Big Read” meanwhile, Ed Crooks explains “why US coal jobs are not coming back”, despite Trump’s efforts.
During his first two months in office, Trump has rolled back key Obama-era greenhouse gas regulations, notes the New York Times. A chart in the piece shows how these changes move the US away from its Paris target to cut emissions at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025.
— NYT Climate (@nytclimate) March 28, 2017
In an editorial, the New York Times laments how Trump’s “ignorance has stripped America of its hard-won role as a global leader on climate issues”, describing the executive order as “madness”. It says:
“The truth is that Mr Trump has, for all practical purposes, repudiated Paris…This raises two very real dangers. Either other big countries also pull out of the agreement. Or they decide to seize the initiative on clean energy sources, which would be good for the climate but bad for American industry.”
Elsewhere, the Financial Times describes the order “as an opening shot rather than a knockout blow” for the Paris deal. “For one thing, Mr Trump did not go as far as pulling the US out of the accord, as he threatened to do during last year’s election campaign,” it notes.
There is also “the question of what any country gains by ditching its Paris commitments,” the FT adds, noting this is especially since the Paris accord allows all countries to come up with their own climate plans rather than obliging them to meet specific emissions targets.
Even oil giant ExxonMobil has written to the Trump administration urging it to keep the US in the Paris climate accord, according to a separate Financial Times article. The letter says it would be “prudent” for the US to remain a party “to ensure a level playing field, so that global energy markets remain as free and competitive as possible”.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Paul Bodnar say the Trump administration faces a clear choice:
Option 1: Stay in a global agreement designed around a bipartisan blueprint, show up to workmanlike talks and file required paperwork no one in Washington will read, and lean in aggressively to the commercial side by promoting U.S. clean-energy exports and investment overseas. Option 2: Withdraw, enrage virtually all our important allies and partners, cede market share to China, and face possible trade retaliation.
International reaction to the executive order ranged from optimistic to defiant.
While it is now unclear where exactly the US stands in relation to the deal, says the BBC, the EU, India and China have all said they will stick to their pledges made in Paris.
EU leaders expressed “regret” over the order, the Washington Post reports. European climate commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete confirmed “the world can count on Europe” to maintain global leadership in the fight against climate change.
“We will stand by Paris, we will defend Paris, and we will implement Paris,” he said. The comments further suggest that the US could be left isolated as other nations push forward to curb emissions, the Washington Post adds.
The Huffington Post meanwhile reports that Germany’s environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, has warned Trump that reversing Obama’s climate policies could hurt the American economy as other nations take the lead on renewable energy. “Whoever tries to change into reverse gear is only going to harm themselves,” she said.
Similarly, Laurent Fabius, the French politician who chaired the Paris talks, also denounced the moves, calling them contrary to the COP21 accord, Reuters reports: “The initial decisions from the new US president’s administration concerning the battle against global warming constitute a very serious step backwards,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it is still committed to the Paris climate deal, reports Reuters. “We still uphold that all sides should move with the times, grasp the opportunities, fulfill their promises and earnestly take proactive steps to jointly push the enforcement of this agreement,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing. “No matter how other countries’ policies on climate change change, as a responsible large developing country, China’s resolve, aims and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change,” he added.
Meanwhile a Chinese state run media outlet has taken a stronger tone, lambasting the move to roll back environmental regulations, reports the Guardian. “Washington’s political selfishness must be discouraged,” the Global Times editorial says.
Speaking to Climate Home, Joyce Mxakato-Diseko – the South African ambassador who chaired the G77 negotiating bloc of developing countries in Paris – says that, whether or not the US formally pulls out of the Paris deal, it is clear it will not live up to its commitments. She says:
“It is very disappointing, especially because in Paris we bent over backwards to accommodate the US and in the process weakened key aspects of the Agreement…We hoped that for once the US could be trusted not to renege, as it serially does, on international agreements.”
In fact, says New Scientist, the damage done by Trump’s stance internationally could be “even more severe” than the domestic effects of reversing Obama’s climate policies. “The US was supposed to be helping poor countries develop on a low-carbon pathway, for instance. If countries build more fossil fuel infrastructure instead, that will lock in decades of extra emissions.”
Trump’s budget proposal, published earlier in the month and still subject to Congressional approval, would “eliminate” US international assistance, ending support from 2018 for the UN’s Green Climate Fund and the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds.
Meanwhile, the Guardian Australia reports the executive order is “seen as a prelude to the US following through with the campaign commitment to withdraw from the Paris deal”. It notes Australian conservatives are watching events in the US “closely”, with some backbenchers suggesting that Australia should review its climate commitments if Trump withdraws from Paris.
However, according to a Financial Times article published earlier this week, UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson says there are “reasons to be hopeful”. Johnson says he raised the issue of global efforts to combat climate change with his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson on a visit Washington last week. “I’m not saying we’re there yet,” Johnson told reporters, “but I think we’re in a much better place than we were, say, six months ago in making that argument and I think we will succeed.”
Separately, a Guardian article ponders the geopolitical effect of Trump’s order on the US, particularly with regards to China. It says:
“[G]iven the issue’s critical importance for all nations and their unprecedented cooperation to date, [the order] might just signal the end of the US’s dominance as the world’s pre-eminent political and economic power, with others taking up the mantle. Trump’s campaign pledge was ‘Make America great again’ – his legacy could be ‘Made China great again’”.
The New York Times similarly says China is now set to take the lead on climate. “For years, the Obama administration prodded, cajoled and beseeched China to make commitments to limit the use of fossil fuels to try to slow the global effects of climate change… In the coming years, the opposite dynamic is poised to play out.”
Meanwhile Washington Post article also notes that the order comes at a time when US renewable energy companies are already fighting for market share and technological leadership against foreign competitors, “most notably China’s solar and wind companies”. “China is stepping into not only an international climate leadership role but also an international clean-energy innovation and deployment leadership role,” Joanna Lewis, an expert on the China’s clean energy industry at Georgetown University, tells the newspaper.
Update: This article was updated on Thursday 30th March to add additional media comments.