How Trump's Climate Takedown Will Fail

To undo the Clean Power Plan, the EPA will have to undergo the same years-long process it took to craft it to begin with.

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Mar 29 2017, 2:04pm

Peabody Energy

President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order on Tuesday aimed at dismantling the legislative architecture President Obama put in place to protect the environment. But it will take much more than his blessing to make it happen.

The majority of Trump's demands would take years to complete and are likely to face fierce opposition from environmentalists and blue states alike. What's more, they will most likely dissolve into legal disputes.

The order instructs EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to begin the lengthy process of deconstructing the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era rule designed to lower carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants 32 percent by 2030.

The administration argues it's trimming away "job-killing restrictions" to unleash the economy's energy sector. But, right now, that looks to be an uphill climb. To undo the rule, the EPA will have to undergo the same years-long process it took to craft it to begin with. This includes a lengthy public comment period.

"An executive order does not trump a rule. That is a public process that is set in statute and law." Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy told Motherboard over the phone.

Trump's executive order also avoids mention of the endangerment finding—a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that says the EPA must regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act if it deems them harmful to human health. With this regulatory authority over carbon still in place, it's going to be a challenge for the administration to argue for why the Clean Power Plan must be rewritten. 

Even right-wing Breitbart News columnist James Delingpole suggested Pruitt step down. Pruitt, he wrote, "is more interested in building his political career than he is taking on the Green Blob."

The Clean Power Plan is currently on hold as a federal court hears challenges brought against it from a coalition of coal states—of which Mr. Pruitt was initially a part. But any attempts to roll back the plan will almost certainly face fierce opposition from environmentalists and 18 states. Almost 70 percent of Americans believe climate change is real and that carbon emissions should be scaled back.

Another challenge facing Pruitt and Trump in rewriting the rule is a dearth in manpower. There are a number of empty positions beneath Pruitt.

"They are going to have to figure out how to develop one of the best, most robust records to reverse that rule using the same staff that they're either eliminating, or really not supporting," McCarthy said.

All of this is not to say that the order should not be taken seriously. The contents of it threaten to roll US public health and climate policy back a decade, while the rest of the world continues on to a clean energy future.