On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order meant to roll back many of the environmental achievements of the Obama administration. It's called "President Trump's Energy Independence Policy" according to a White House news release, but it's not too clear what makes it "independent." It's basically Trump's way of showing that he doesn't care about climate change. The substance of the order strips emissions regulations from power plants, lifts a ban on new coal mining on federal land, and instructs the government not to consider the climate when it makes decisions. In the process, it also revokes rules that make regulations consistent across all federal agencies.
The photo op for the signing of the order took place at EPA headquarters, where 12 coal miners posed onstage with Trump. At one point Trump turned to the workers and said, "You know what it says, right? You're going back to work." With the order, Trump is ostensibly fulfilling a campaign promise he made in West Virginia when he posed in a hard hat and told miners they'd be "better than ever before."
I received a flood of horrifying emailed press releases about this order, which environmental groups have been dreading. One, from Corporate Accountability, said it's about to "doom people to a world where the air is unbreathable and the water undrinkable for the sake of corporate profits." That's probably a little over the top, so here's a quick rundown of what we can safely say about this:
Did This Order Just Kill Obama's Legacy on Climate Change?
According to environmental activist David Doniger, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air Program, "They're going to have a hard time justifying reversing things to the courts." He argues that there's a deeply rooted legal basis for Obama's policies; as he put it, "The Obama administration started using [the Clean Air Act] in earnest over the last eight years." He pointed to legal fights, like the ones California often wages, that generally kick off when Republicans try to roll back federal environmental regulations.
The trouble is, Obama's invocation of the Clean Air Act is already under judicial review. That means a ten-judge panel has the power to shoot down a great deal Obama's plan with or without this executive order—and the new order directs new Attorney General Jeff Sessions to push for the panel to rule against Obama's plan.
Will It Bring Back Coal Mining?
If you were imagining coal executives just waiting by their phones for someone to give them permission to open mines up again, you're dreaming. According to Christopher Knittel, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at MIT, "the tough times that the coal industry has seen over the last decade actually have very, very little to do with federal climate change policy." Instead, he told me, the trouble is that coal can't compete with cheap natural gas.
If there's an increase in jobs, they most likely won't be mining jobs. "It's not going to hurt job creation in drilling for oil and natural gas," Knittel told me.
That's because coal has a tough time competing with cheap natural gas. Despite Trump trotting out the miners, this executive order, Knittel argued, won't help their industry. It provides more opportunities for drilling on federal lands, so it won't do any good to flood the market with coal. "Unless the demand for that coal, coming from electricity-generation companies is there, allowing more coal mining to take place is not likely to lead to huge increases in employment," he explained. Besides, even a resurgent mining industry would be at the forefront of drone labor, so the idea that there are salvageable mining jobs out there is likely nothing more than a myth.
Will This Worsen Climate Change?
Even if this order doesn't move the needle all that much in terms of increasing coal's actual share of the energy economy, this move does send a message to the world that The US cares more about generating cheap electricity than it does about climate change. According to Knittel, "It's really fallen on the US's shoulders to carry the load, to convince China and India to go along, and that obviously requires the US to do something themselves."
India and China's energy sectors—which were responsible for 85 percent of the new coal plants built on Earth in the past ten years—have seen a sudden drop in the use of coal, and according to Knittel, social pressure from do-gooder countries has been part of that shift. "But we've lost that US leadership, and my concern is that China and India will drop out because of that," he told me.
Will It Bring Energy Independence to the US?
Even though language about energy independence is all over the White House's talking points for this order, there's not much in the order that would help achieve it, Knittel told me. "Allowing for more drilling to take place for oil in principle can increase our energy independence, but that's somewhat independent of climate change policy," he told me. The US is already independent in terms of natural gas—which is to say it doesn't import any, and it imports foreign oil largely because foreign oil is cheap right now. "Drilling for oil is driven by the oil price itself," he explained.
And as of January, Trump was pushing for an increase in oil imports, via the Dakota Access pipeline, which brings in oil from Canada.
Will This Hurt Renewable Energy?
Lifting regulations on fossil fuels certainly won't help renewables in the short term, but options like solar power just keep getting cheaper. In certain areas of agriculture, for instance, installing solar panels is just bottom-line cheaper than running off grid power. That means even the most ruthless, profit-seeking farmer in the world would go green in many cases—it's just a cheaper alternative.
"The market forces are strong," Doniger told me. "They send a signal that's totally opposite the fiction that the Trump administration is trying to convey."
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