President Trump’s Executive Order on Climate Change and Energy: What You Need to Know

A coal-based energy plan is top of the list for Donald Trump's executive order.  Getty Images

President Donald Trump has begun to make good on his vow to dismantle President Obama’s climate and energy policies. On Tuesday, March 28, Trump signed a sweeping executive order that unmakes Obama administration efforts to slash emissions from coal-fired power — the greatest source of climate-altering greenhouse gas pollution — and prepare communities for the effects of global warming. Here’s a breakdown of what it means for the country’s energy and climate policy.

The Clean Power Plan

The Trump administration has ordered a review of this Environmental Protection Agency rule, the Obama administration’s signature effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The plan would regulate and ultimately reduce carbon dioxide spewing from existing fossil fuel–burning power plants.

It would, that is, if over a dozen states, along with power utility and fossil fuel industry stakeholders, hadn’t challenged it in federal court shortly after it was finalized in 2015. In 2016, the Supreme Court stayed the agency’s enforcement of the plan while the lower court case plays out.

The Trump-ordered review is likely to end with the withdrawal of the plan, as his administration is stacked from the Oval Office downwards with opponents of federal efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Supporters of the plan have already said they’ll sue the administration to try and save it.

The demise of the Clean Power Plan would not affect EPA mandates to reduce haze-forming nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, which have worsened air quality and blurred scenic vistas from coast to coast. (But Utah’s Representative Jason Chaffetz and Senator Mike Lee have introduced resolutions to overturn a regional haze plan that could clear the air over Arches National Park.)

Federal Coal Leasing Moratorium

In January 2016 the Obama administration stopped giving out new permits for coal mining on public lands, in order to update the 30-year-old leasing program to reflect its real costs. Thanks to the low rates the coal industry pays for federal coal, taxpayers have effectively subsidized the industry for decades; while the costs of damage by mining or burning coal to public health, the environment, and the climate have never been factored in.

President Trump’s executive order lifts this moratorium immediately. But it’s unlikely to spur a big uptick in coal mining jobs, which have been falling for years due to automation in the industry and ample supplies of lower-cost natural gas.

Federal Climate Change Guidance

In August the Obama White House released detailed instructions — a “guidance” — to federal agencies on how to calculate and factor greenhouse gas emissions into reviews mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as adaptation to changing conditions like rising seas, more destructive storms, and warmer, wetter weather.

Most real-world federal projects require NEPA reviews, including projects involving national parks and public lands. So this guidance, which had been in development since 2010, promised to spur wide-ranging climate action.

President Trump’s executive order rescinds this guidance, and the administration has not mentioned plans to replace it. 

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change

Rolling back the Clean Power Plan would be an assault on U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement, since it was the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

But the accord itself is not mentioned in the executive order, despite President Trump’s campaign-trail vows to pull the U.S. out of the agreement. According to a senior White House official, “that’s still under discussion.”

Federal Authority to Regulate Carbon Dioxide Pollution

The Trump administration’s top-down denial of global warming science has been well-documented, up to and including recent public statements by EPA chief Pruitt that carbon dioxide pollution is not the primary cause of climate change. (It is.)

But if the administration also intends to deny the federal government’s legal mandate to curb carbon pollution, that’s not indicated in this executive order. It does not mention the 2007 Supreme Court decision upholding the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon dioxide emissions if they pose a danger to the public, nor does it mention the EPA’s subsequent 2009 determination, called an “endangerment finding,” that CO2 emissions do pose a danger to the public.