US climate and energy policy: the first month of Trump administration

Exactly one month ago on Friday, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the new president of the United States of America. Since he took office, many controversial decisions have been taken – especially the executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, better known as the “Muslim Ban”. With respect to climate policy, several actions have been taken.

When Donald Trump took office one month ago, the website of the White House was adjusted to the beliefs and ideas of the new president. Therefore, the webpage on climate change that existed under the Obama administration disappeared. Instead, a page was uploaded titled “An America First Energy Plan”. In there, it says that “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan” as the energy industry would have been hold back by burdensome regulations for too long. Moreover, it is pledged that the new Administration will “embrace the shale oil and gas revolution” while at the same time it wants to revive America’s coal industry. In addition, the article says that Trump will “refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting […] air and water”.

And it did not take long to walk the talk. On January 24, 2017, Donald Trump signed executive orders to continue the constructions of the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access oil pipelines, The Guardian reported. Both infrastructural projects had been stopped under the Obama administration. The pipelines face harsh criticism because the petroleum transported stems from Canadian oil sands which require major encroachments into the environment, as well as due to the climate impact. In addition, the Dakota Access pipeline is planned to pass through a reserve of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. It is alleged that the pipelines would risk contaminating tribal water supplies and sacred grounds. Many activists have joined the Native American movement against the infrastructural project. However, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe recently lost a challenge in court aimed at stopping the pipeline drilling, according to another report of The Guardian. Additionally, there have been disputes about the creation of jobs induced by the pipelines – while Trump spoke about 28,000 new jobs, studied revealed that most jobs would be created during the construction and only 50 in the long-term. Furthermore, activists criticized the fact that Trump holds investments in Energy Transfer Partners, the main constructor and future operator of the pipeline, and that the CEO of the company supported Trump’s presidential campaign.

With respect to “elimination of harmful and unnecessary policies” and of “burdensome regulations”, it has been pointed at different possibilities that the Trump administration and the Republican Party could take. In the foreground is the Congressional Review Act. The law enables the U.S. Congress to review new federal regulations and to overrule such regulation within 60 legislative days. The Congressional Review Act was applied only once since it was adopted in 1996. The law can be used with respect to two regulations. First, the Obama administration’s restrictions on coal-mining operations – especially mountaintop removal coal mining where mountaintops are simply blasted away to expose the coal – to prevent pollution of streams and other sources of drinking water. According to The Hill, President Trump has already signed last week the respective legislation to overturn this regulation. Second, the regulation to reduce fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas drilling on public lands. As the Washington Post reported, the House of Representatives has adopted a resolution in this respect. The Senate has still to approve these resolutions by a final majority vote –as the Republicans are in majority in both chambers this is counted as definite. In addition, a resolution that repeals requirements for oil, gas and mining companies to disclose information about business payments to foreign governments has already been signed by Donald Trump, according to The Hill. Thus, the New York Times has concluded that “not since the Reagan administration has Washington moved so quickly to roll back or nullify so many federal regulations, one of the clearest signs of an abrupt shift of power”. Moreover, Donald Trump could override the ban of Barack Obama on leasing coal mines on public lands. An executive order is expected to be sufficient in this case.  Vehicle fuel standards could also be rolled back, as it is already demanded by the car industry. As the rules have been enacted already in 2011, the Congressional Review Act cannot be applied. However, the provisions foresee that the standards should be revised in 2017 – the perfect opportunity to lower the requiremens for automakers. In contrast, climate regulations like the Clean Power Plan are very difficult to reverse. The law is undergoing a lawsuit which might be addressed by the Supreme Court in the end, a process expected to take years. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Donald Trump is preparing several executive orders to reshape the EPA but there is still much speculation in this regard. The uncertainty might end soon as Scott Pruitt has been confirmed by the Senate last Friday, February 17, as the new head of the EPA.

It is also worth to take a look at the meetings of Donald Trump with other Heads of State and Government as well as the respective joint statements. After the meeting of Donald Trump with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a communique was published. In the joint statement, the Trump administration has used the terms ‘environment’, ‘clean energy’, ‘resilience’ and ‘energy innovation’ for the first time. In contrast, the joint statement with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe does not deal with any of these issues. Because no statement has been made after the meeting of Donald Trump with Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, it can only be speculated if the politicians addressed any of these topics. Nevertheless, the joint statement with Justin Trudeau is in stark contrast to the pledged cooperation on climate goals between the U.S. and Canada under the Obama Administration.

With respect to international climate policy, it is not yet clear which path the U.S. will take. While Trump vowed to cancel the Paris Agreement during his presidential campaign, State Secretary Rex Tillerson said in the Senate confirmation hearing that the U.S. should keep a seat at a table. Meanwhile, Myron Ebell who headed the EPA transition team claimed that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement and change its course on climate policy. In any case, within the first week of the presidency of Donald Trump, it was reported that an executive order would be prepared to drastically reduce the financial engagement of the U.S. in the UN system and other international organisations. Accordingly, a review would be initiated to evaluate the different international treaties. Criteria for terminating or cutting funding would include for instance if the Palestinian Authority is granted full membership – which applies to the UNFCCC.

In contrast, the Congressional Research Service published a report emphasising the complexity of withdrawing from international agreements such as the Paris Agreement or from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As the Paris Agreement was ratified by the executive powers of the then President Obama, it is expected that Donald Trump may unilaterally withdraw from it without approval from the legislative branch. However, the Paris Agreement lays down in its Article 28 that Parties can only withdraw from the Agreement three years after its entry into force. As this was the case last year during COP22, the earliest point in time to notify the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would be in November 2019. Further, the withdrawal takes effect only one year after giving notice which would prolong the time until November 2020 accordingly. If the U.S. would in contrast withdraw from the UNFCCC, it would automatically also withdraw from the Paris Agreement. However, as the UNFCCC was ratified by the Congress in 1992 by domestic law, a withdrawal from the UNFCCC may be more complicated. The report of the Congressional Research Service also emphasises that there are “core congressional interests” related to the issue of climate change and considers a more likely scenario that the non-legally binding commitments will not be implemented. This would have the a similar impact as a withdrawal but would neither violate national nor international law.

Therefore, it is still unclear how the Trump Administration will behave in this consideration. Apart from that, experts disagree over whether it would be better to have the U.S. inside the UNFCCC while negotiating the rulebook to operationalise the Agreement. An U.S. exit may have a stronger impact on other rather reluctant countries to lower their ambition and it may be difficult for the U.S. to join the UNFCCC again once having withdrawn from it. In any case, it has to be reflected that businesses are much more progressive in this regard and mostly support the Paris Agreement – a fact that has not been imaginable several years ago. Thus, the Los Angeles Times concludes, “it hasn’t gone without notice that the frenetic new administration has waited this long” with taking action relating to international climate policy.


(Image: West Virginia Coal Mining. Source: Delta Whiskey, flickr)