President Trump’s environmental agenda – the story so far
US Congress reconvened on Thursday (3 January) following the 2018 midterm elections which saw the Democratic Party win the majority in the House of Representatives. With new Speaker Nancy Pelosi promising to turn the screw on US climate change action, edie takes a look back at the first half of Trump's presidency and its impact on the US climate and environment agenda.
The Democrats won the House of Representatives in November riding a platform that included a call to address the global crisis. In her inaugural speech on Thursday, new House speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that climate change action will be a top priority for the Democrats in the 116th Congress.
Calling for “an end to inaction and denial of science” related to climate change, she said: “We must also face the existential threat of our time, the climate crisis manifested in natural disasters of epic proportions. The people are ahead of Congress and the Congress must join them.”
This rhetoric will be music to the ears to green campaigners dismayed by the controversial environmental decisions taken by President Trump’s administration since December 2016. Trump’s election campaign was centred on a pledge to roll back Obama-era polices that aimed to reverse climate change and reduce environmental pollution. Since then, Trump has moved to strengthen the fossil fuel industry, swimming against a global tide pushing towards the aims of the Paris Agreement.
Below, edie takes a look at the key milestones in the Trump administration which have impacted on climate policy in the US in the first half of his presidency.
President Trump’s environmental agenda – the story so far
One of the first moves from the Trump Administration was to remove all references to climate change from the White House’s website, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website devoted to explaining climate change later pulled. By the end of 2017, Trump announced that the US would no longer regard climate change by name as a national security threat.
Fierce opposition was voiced from green groups to the appointments of EPA chief Scott Pruitt, who frequently sued the organisation over regulations such as the Obama-led Clean Power Plan, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil chief executive with extensive ties to fossil fuels.
Within his first few months of presidency, Trump issued several memoranda seeking to permit the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. The latter project, a 1,200 pipeline that would connect Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in Texas, was previously rejected by Obama amid concerns that the pipeline would increase future carbon emissions. Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline was blocked by a federal judge in November 2018, noting in a letter that the Trump administration had failed to fully consider the climate, cultural, economic and environmental impacts of the project.
The White House’s first preliminary budget under Trump outlined deep cuts to US science and environmental agencies – including the EPA – in a bid to increase defence spending. In fact, the EPA’s budget was cut by 31% – a stepper cut than any other agency. It led to thousands of scientists marching through the streets of Washington DC in April 2017 to voice support for the role of science and the environment in society.
In March 2017, Trump signed an executive order to review the Clean Power Plan, in a move that sought to dismantle much of the work on climate change delivered by the Obama administration. The Plan, which mandated the US power sector’s carbon emissions to fall by 32% from 2005 to 2030, was scrapped in October 2017, with Pruitt claiming that “the war on coal is over”. However, a report by policy research firm the Rhodium Group found that the US is still on track to achieve the Plan’s initial goal.
Shortly afterwards, EPA chief Pruitt announced a “back-to-basics” agenda for the agency, which included a review of the Clean Power Plan, while Trump signed executive orders for a review of Obama-era bans on offshore oil and gas drilling in parts of the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Paris withdrawal and further rollbacks
The moment green campaigners most feared came in June 2017 when Trump pledged to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, reneging on the US’ agreement to cuts its emissions between 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Through this move, the US effectively ceded leadership on the issue to other countries, including China and France, whose President Emmanuel Macron led the responses from other nations with a “Make Our Planet Great Again” slogan. Directly after the announcement, a whole host of US states and corporates displayed solidarity with the ‘We Are Still In‘ pledge.
The start of 2018 saw Trump move to safeguard domestic solar manufacturers by placing a 30% tariff on imported solar modules, a move which heightened the trade war between the US and China. At the time critics stated that that it would inadvertently stifle manufacturers unable to scale-up to cope with demand.
By the Spring of last year, it was announced that the Trump Administration’s would rollback the US Government’s fuel efficiency standards for cars and light-duty trucks. The policy required light cars made after 2012 to become almost twice as efficient by 2025 – averaging nearly 54 miles per gallon. Trump’s described by environmental health and public groups as a “U-turn in the fight against climate change”. Car manufacturers welcomed the news as the “right decision” and a move that would keep new vehicles affordable to more Americans.
Pruitt’s resignation as EPA chief in July 2018 came after months of criticism and an ever-growing pile of ethics scandals, marking the end of one of the most divisive US tenures in decades. September 2018 saw new rollbacks to policy, reducing requirements for oil and gas firms to monitor and mitigate releases of methane from wells and other operations. By the end of September 2018 a Washington Post story highlighted a shocking footnote in a US Government agency report which forecast that global carbon emissions will nearly double by 2100.
As recently as December 2018 the Trump administration rolled back another Obama policy when it pledged to lift some restrictions on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal power plants. This came during the COP24 negotiations in Poland. The change, intended to spur construction of new coal plants, was hailed by the EPA’s acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, who said the move would “rescind excessive burdens on America’s energy providers and level the playing field so that new energy technologies can be part of America’s future”.