Planetary Politics: What Trump Could do to the Environment

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One of the big issues that was notably absent during 2016’s exhausting, nasty campaign was climate change and environmental policy. It has found new life after Trump's victory and the election of a Republican Congress that could finally fulfill their wishes of drastically cutting back the government's environmental regulations. Case in point: Trump's transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency is lead by Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic. The stakes are high, and there’s a dizzying amount on the chopping block. It’s too early to know exactly what the new administration will do, but here are a few of the big pieces of progress that a Trump administration, with a Republican Congress, seem to have in their sights.

The Clean Power Plan

What Trump Could Do: He could simply refuse to defend the Clean Power Plan, a rule that aims to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, speed transition to clean energy, and create state-by-state goals for carbon pollution reduction. Currently, the plan is finalized but pending implementation until it is reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Likelihood: Likely. Like other rules that are in draft or tied up in the courts, scrapping the Clean Power Plan by declining to defend it anymore could be an easy win for the administration’s oil and gas interests.

The Mercury and Air Toxic Standards

What Trump Could Do: Through executive order, Trump could roll back standards set in 2011 by the EPA to limit the mercury, nickel, arsenic, and other toxins in air pollution around power plants. “Once you start rolling back clean air standards for the sake of cutting regulation, there’s no telling when it will stop,” says Jeremy Symons, Associate Vice President for Climate Political Affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “That could leave our families and communities vulnerable to mercury pollution and air toxins that threaten public health, and to other forms of air pollution that put the lungs of our children at risk.”

Likelihood: Very likely. The rules are tied up in court, which means the Trump administration could decline to defend them.

Fuel Economy Standards

What Trump Could Do: The Obama administration introduced ambitious targets for fuel economy in 2012: get light vehicles sold in the U.S. to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Regulators recently found that automakers were on track to achieve about 50.8 miles per gallon. Although he hasn’t said much about it, Trump could work to lower these standards.

Likelihood: Very likely. Ted Parson, a professor of Environmental Law at UCLA, notes that “the [fuel economy] rule contains a requirement for midterm assessment of technical feasibility that has to take place by 2018. Depending upon the findings of that assessment of feasibility, there is flexibility built into the rule that allows them to weaken it.” However, federal laws that are already in place compel agencies to “craft rules aimed at cutting pollution and reducing foreign-oil dependence,” so a rule will be present in some form.

Public Lands

What Trump Could Do: Open public lands and national parks up for mining and drilling. On his campaign site, Trump has proposed to “streamline the permitting process for all energy projects,” and “encourage the production of [fossil fuel] resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters.” This would effectively cut environmental reviews and preservation of lands. Newsweek uses the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as an example: Drillers have been pining for a chance to drill there for a long time and now may have their chance. “I don’t see any conservation gains during the Trump Administration,” Dwight Pitcaithley, the former chief historian to the National Park Service, told Newsweek. “Never in my 40 years paying attention to the Park Service have I ever seen anything approaching this.”

Likelihood: Likely, but not all at once. Privatizing and opening up national land and parks for drilling and mining requires changing legislation — and given that an estimated 80 percent of Americans would endure increased taxes if they could keep National Parks, according to a Harvard Kennedy School study, an overreach into drilling and mining in national parks would likely make the new president very unpopular.

Methane Emissions

What Trump Could Do: Methane is the main component of natural gas, and is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its heat-trapping ability. Methane in the atmosphere is a byproduct of the oil and gas industry, and about 18 percent of all greenhouse gases is methane that’s emitted by livestock. “The oil and gas industry has largely been unregulated when it comes to methane pollution, which is an important greenhouse gas, and is wasted energy,” says Jeremy Symons, Associate Vice President for Climate Political Affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. In the summer, the Obama administration proposed a rule that would target methane emissions from oil and gas wells, helping prevent 510,000 tons of methane being released into the air by 2025, by creating anti-leaking standards for new drills. The methane rule is finalized, meaning they would have to go through another rule-making process, which includes weighing the social cost against the benefit. 

Likelihood: Possible. It’s not an easy win for a new Trump administration, and would take a while for it to put into action. With other more pressing concerns on the plate, the methane rules might take a back seat.

Offshore Drilling

What Trump Could Do: Auction drilling rights in the mid- and south-Atlantic ocean that Obama's Interior Department took off the table in March when proposing its five-year plan for offshore drilling. 

Likelihood: Likely, though it would take time for Trump's administration to change Obama's five-year plan once it's in place. "We hope he will recognize that offshore drilling is an extremely risky proposition, and in fact a bad business decision both for the companies involved and for the U.S. government itself," says Jacqueline Savitz, Vice President for United States at Oceana. 

Oil and Gas Pipelines

What Trump Could Do: Green light the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota (and any other pipeline that crosses his desk) regardless of protest. 

Likelihood: It is likely that pipelines will continue to be built, and that the Dakota Access Pipeline will be green-lit. There is a lot of complexity around pipelines actually being built, but the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners is “100% confident” that the Dakota Access pipeline will now be completed, despite the protests from Native Americans and other environmental groups. Other pipelines proposals are likely to speed through the Trump administration, diverting resources from clean energy. “I don’t think there’s any intention here to start with one project,” says Symons. “I think industry lobbyists have a more ambitious agenda to roll back environmental review of any energy project. They’ll call it streamlining, but that’s code for gutting the protections that allow for public input.”

The Paris Agreement

What Trump Could Do: While actually pulling out of the agreement would take four years, Trump can refuse to meet the U.S.' commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent from its 2005 levels by the year 2025, leaving it a useless document. Abandoning Obama's Clean Power Plan is one way to effectively renege on the U.S. contribution. Another option: He could pull out of the UNFCC, which would only take one year (see below).

Likelihood: Highly likely. Trump has pledged to do this on day one, setting the U.S. up for failure in the fight against climate change. The U.S. backing out of its agreement could set up China to be the main innovator in climate change. Ted Parson says this would be the second most damaging thing a Trump administration could do, short of backing out of the 1992 UNFCCC Treaty. “I think it would be terribly costly. It’s a strange message," Parson says. "The Paris Agreement is a very substantial U.S. initiative… The demoralizing effect and the symbolic effect and the sense that you really can’t trust the United States to do anything would be devastating.”

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Treaty

What Trump Could Do: Back out of the 1992 treaty, signed by George H.W. Bush, simultaneously nullifying the Paris Agreement — with one executive order.

Likelihood: Possible. A source told Reuters that the president-elect was looking into such an option. For climate scientists and lawmakers, this is when things start to look really nuclear. “That would probably be the single most destructive thing, because it would pull the U.S. out of the entire structure that’s been created over the past 25 years,” says Parson. Although there is a one-year waiting period for withdrawal, this would be another easy anti-environment win for the Trump administration.

The United Nations

What Trump Could Do: The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the United Nation's core budget — about $33 billion — much of it going to worldwide climate change efforts. The U.S. has already promised about $3 billion to the UN-backed Green Climate Fund. According to Climate Home, under the combination of a Trump administration and Republican Congress, “funds to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of global warming and develop sustainably will be redirected to domestic priorities.” Ceasing contributions to the UN for climate change efforts would damage the prospects of countries worldwide to fight climate change, and would further sour the U.S.’ relationship with our allies. “Going back on commitments for financial contributions would up there with withdrawing from the Paris [agreement]” in terms of damage, says Parson.

Likelihood: Very likely. One of Trump’s big pledges is to divert billions for UN climate change efforts to U.S. infrastructure. As the Republican platform itself says of President Obama's previous pledges: “It would be illegal for the President to follow through on his intention to provide millions in funding for the UNFCCC and hundreds of millions for its Green Climate Fund.”

Additional reporting by Ellie Kincaid