Turbulent Prospects on Environment-Energy Beat Likely in Trump Era

January 31, 2017


Special Backgrounder: Turbulent Prospects on Environment-Energy Beat Likely in Trump Era

By Joseph A. Davis

As part of our Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment 2017 special report, Backgrounder has prepared a look-ahead for key issues to watch in the coming year.

For many overworked journalists, the one thing worse than not having enough news is having way too much of it all at once. On the environment-energy beat, the floodgates of news are now open. Think cold, late-night pizza at the office. Every night for months.

President Donald J. Trump waves at spectators during the 58th presidential inauguration parade in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2017.
President Donald J. Trump waves at spectators during the presidential inauguration parade in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2017. Photo: Defense Department/Air Force Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos, Flickr Creative Commons

As he comes into the White House, President Donald Trump acquires huge power to carry out many of his declared intentions to attack environmental protections and to push the pedal to the metal on energy development. Moreover, Republicans have, for the first time in about a decade, a Congress where both chambers in addition to the presidency are controlled by the same party.

The conditions seem ripe for revolutionary change. But change will still unfold step by step, quite possibly in unpredictable ways.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump drew cheers with an aggressive if incoherent pledge to abolish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (although he didn’t actually know the name of the agency).

“Department of Environmental Protection. We are going to get rid of it in almost every form,” he said in a March 3 GOP primary candidates’ debate. “We're going to have little tidbits left.”

Later in the campaign he seemed to back off that promise some. A few news media at the time did note that legally, Trump could not abolish the EPA.

But he could probably do a lot to wreck it over the course of four years — and by doing so trash many of the rules that protect people’s health from cancer-causing chemicals and smog. For starters, he appointed to lead his transition team Myron Ebell, a climate denier and longtime conservative critic of the agency from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Trump’s brash declarations may … may be bluffs — opening negotiating positions of an artful dealmaker. Or possibly not. After finishing his transition work, Ebell said in several media interviews that he personally wanted to cut the agency’s roughly 15,000 workforce in half and reduce its $8 billion budget by $1 billion.

It’s pretty clear that Trump’s — and the GOP’s — ambitions to get rid of environmental regulations will not happen without a fight. Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council are gearing up (and fundraising) to take him to court.

Trump’s nomination of Oklahoma’s Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt aggravated environmentalists’ fears. Pruitt took donations from fossil energy interests and organized a campaign that took such money secretively and sued EPA to block the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s signature climate initiative.

Critics say Pruitt can’t represent the agency conflict-free after suing it a dozen times. Democratic senators raised such issues at a Jan. 18 confirmation hearing — but it was not clear that they could stop his confirmation.

Let’s take an overview of some of the key issue areas where conflict (and news) is likely to reign in the coming year.

Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan is the keystone of Obama’s efforts to address climate change — a package of regulations that would reduce greenhouse emissions by pushing electric power plants to move away from coal and toward climate-friendly renewable energy like solar and wind. More than two dozen states have challenged it in court and a smaller phalanx of states is defending it. The legalities are complex, but the legal battle may not matter, because even many states opposing it are on track to meet its emission-reduction goals. Coal is losing in the market to cheaper and cleaner gas and renewables. READ MORE

Paris Climate Agreement

The December 2015 Paris Agreement was reached by some 194 nations and ratified by enough to go into effect in November 2016. The United States was among them, but Trump during the campaign vowed to “cancel” it (something he can not do). The question is whether he will try to withdraw the U.S. ratification, how long that will take and what the consequences of that might be. It would be demoralizing, but the treaty would remain in effect for the rest of the world. Moreover, the United States and world energy economies are transforming so rapidly from fossil fuels to renewables that it may not make much difference, while it’s also possible that state and local governments may replace federal initiatives on climate change. READ MORE

Scientific Integrity

Trump, on Twitter, has called climate change a Chinese "hoax," rejecting the overwhelming consensus among actual scientists that manmade climate change is a serious problem. More recently, he has flirted with the anti-vaccine movement. Positions like those have led many to conclude that Trump and his GOP allies are anti-science. Those fears were hardly assuaged when it was revealed that his politically appointed transition team were insisting on clearing articles by EPA scientists before they could be published in scientific journals. READ MORE

Undoing Regulations

Both Trump and Congressional Republicans have complained about the burden on industry of federal environmental and energy regulation. Now that they hold the White House along with both chambers in Congress, they have handy a tool called the Congressional Review Act, which could allow Congress to overrule some of the regulations of the Obama administration. Others may eventually be rescinded by Trump administration regulatory actions, which could take years. A limited number can be undone by executive fiat. One thing is certain, Trump’s deregulatory efforts will be challenged in court by environmental groups.  


One of the few things Democrats and Trump, and eventually Republicans, seem to have found agreement on is the notion of creating many jobs with a vast federal program to build and repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure — roads, bridges, ports and water pipes. That, however, is where most agreement ends. What remains to be worked out is what will be built, how to pay for it and how to amass votes by divvying up the spoils. The politicians are still far apart and possibly still unrealistic about paying for it. But among the goodies may be many tens of billions for environmentally friendly projects like water, sewers and public transit.  READ MORE

Pipelines/Energy Infrastructure

Oil pipelines like the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access have during the Obama years been the center of intense political firestorms — partly because the oil industry wants them and partly because they have become symbols and surrogates for fighting climate change. Trump campaigned on a promise to get them built and signed executive orders his fourth day in office that were supposed to signal full speed ahead. But the executive orders were essentially photo ops. Even with Trump’s support, the pipelines still have to thread a long legal maze. And with a sudden resignation Jan. 26, Trump will now have to appoint and get confirmed a new commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before future pipelines can be approved.  READ MORE

Coal Leasing

While campaigning in coal states, Trump promised to resurrect this declining U.S. industry. Doing that may be impossible, because coal is being replaced with energy sources that are cheaper — like gas, solar and wind. One easy target, from a purely political angle, will be Obama’s moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands. Obama sought to factor in the climate consequences of this coal and to address concerns the government was not getting a fair price for its resources. The moratorium will probably be quickly reversible by executive action. Another vulnerable target will be the Obama Stream Protection Rule, aimed at preventing damage from strip mining, but opposed by the coal industry.  READ MORE

Offshore Leasing

Using various executive powers, Obama’s Interior Department declared vast tracts of U.S. coastal waters off-limits for offshore oil and gas leasing. These include stretches of the Atlantic coast and the Chukchi and Beaufort seas in the Arctic. Since Obama used special legal authorities to do this, any effort to reverse these actions is likely to pose significant challenges and be tested in court. With the current low oil price, companies seem less eager to mount high-cost and high-risk Arctic operation. READ MORE

Onshore Leasing

With Trump’s pledge to open up energy resources, conflict over the leasing of oil and gas drilling rights on millions of acres of federal land seems inevitable. While the oil industry complains the Bureau of Land Management does not offer enough lands for leasing, the oil companies still only buy a fraction of what is offered. What the oil industry really wants is often the choicest lands — which may be environmentally sensitive. Expect, for example, a huge battle in Congress over opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.  READ MORE

Congressional Situation

It bears repeating that a Republican-controlled Congress probably will reinforce and enable the agenda of Trump and vice versa. The slate of committee leaders seems favorable to energy. The Senate Energy Committee is chaired by Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a known quantity and effective legislator from a strongly pro-oil state. The Senate Environment is newly chaired by John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). He is from the state that produces the most coal in the nation and is a climate skeptic. So climate activists can expect little succor from Republicans in the Senate. But the Senate is so closely divided that Democrats need only peel off a few Republican votes to mount an effective resistance.

The road ahead for U.S. environment and energy policy

It is still too early in both the 115th Congress and the Trump administration to predict with much confidence exactly what is going to happen.

We will know more once confirmation decisions are made on the Trump nominations for leadership of environmental and energy agencies. We will know even more once those agencies (e.g., EPA and Interior) actually start taking administrative actions. But the general trajectory of deregulation and energy development is clear.

Will Trump “cancel” the Paris Agreement? First he said he will. Then he said he had an open mind. Then Tillerson said he shouldn’t. The lesson may be that we can not take literally every declaration and promise Trump makes. Only time will tell.

Already, it is clear at least from action in the House that a deregulatory groundswell is rising as strongly as ever. Between Congress and Trump’s agencies, at least some regulatory cutbacks seem inevitable. Also inevitable will be pushback from environmentalists in court and some Democrats in Congress.

Joseph A. Davis is director of SEJ’s WatchDog Project, and writes SEJournal Online’s Backgrounders and TipSheet columns.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 5. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.


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