Last week President Donald Trump’s bid to rescind the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which seeks to regulate emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants, was made easier by a Court of Appeals ruling that put a 26-state lawsuit challenging the plan on hold for 60 days without deciding on the plan’s legality. That decision followed a Department of Justice request—amid objections of 18 states, several cities and other groups—to halt the case. The court also granted a similar request to halt a regulation setting emissions limits for future power plants.
The ruling was a win for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt, who is working on the president’s behalf to review the Clean Power Plan. But it did not give him his desired unlimited hiatus, or “abeyance,” which would have put the case on hold while the EPA decides what to do about controlling carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants—an EPA mandate, under the Clean Air Act, that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld. Instead, the litigants were given two weeks to submit briefs on whether the Clean Power Plan should be “remanded”—sent back to the EPA in lieu of the court deciding the case.
An EPA spokesperson acknowledged Pruitt’s partial victory.
“Pursuant to the president’s executive order, Administrator [Scott] Pruitt has already announced that EPA is reviewing the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan,” said J.P. Freire. “We are pleased that this order gives EPA the opportunity to proceed with that process.”
Others acknowledged that the court will probably never rule on the Clean Power Plan’s legality and that today’s order probably hastened the regulation’s demise.
“If the court had upheld the rule, it wouldn’t have prevented the new administration from revoking it, but it might have made this effort harder,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at Bracewell and a former EPA air chief (subscription). “At the very least, today’s ruling means that it will not take as long for the administration to undo the Clean Power Plan.” He added that “I don’t think the D.C. Circuit has ever gone ahead and decided on the legality of a rule when a new administration says it plans to rescind or revise it.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who leads the CPP defense, vowed to fight on in court, stating that “Today’s temporary pause in the litigation does not relieve EPA of its legal obligation to limit carbon pollution from its largest source: fossil-fueled power plants.”
Executive Order Could Expand U.S. Offshore Drilling
Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that initiates the process of undoing former President Obama’s restrictions on offshore oil and natural gas drilling. The action could expand offshore energy development by issuing a multi-year review of oil and gas drilling in federally prohibited waters as well as an evaluation of the status of marine sanctuaries. Specifically, the America-First Offshore Energy Strategy instructs the Interior Department to revise the Obama administration’s five-year plan for leasing federal waters and the Commerce Department to refrain from naming or expanding marine sanctuaries and to review existing ones.
At the signing ceremony, Trump emphasized that he is rescinding Obama’s executive action to indefinitely put much of U.S. Arctic waters and some of the Atlantic off limits to drillers.
“It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban. So, you hear that? It reverses the previous administration’s Arctic leasing ban,” said the president.
But whether the Trump administration can actually reverse this separate offshore drilling ban is unclear. In issuing the ban, Obama used an obscure provision of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. That act does not explicitly allow a president to get rid of a designation.
Also unclear is the impact of the order, which comes as low oil prices and soaring onshore production have significantly dampened industry demand for offshore leases.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke emphasized that the order won’t immediately open up the outer continental shelf to drilling but that it will trigger a two-year public process to reconsider which areas are suitable for leasing for oil, gas and wind development. He also added that he was uncertain how the plan would take into account melting Arctic ice.
“I have not thought about climate change,” Zinke said. “I’m sure we’ll look at that.”
EPA, DOE Temporarily Spared Big Cuts, But Not Climate Info on Government Websites
A bipartisan government funding deal unveiled Monday by congressional leaders to avert a government shutdown tomorrow would make much smaller cuts in climate and energy programs (subscription) than those proposed by President Donald Trump for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year. Instead of a $247 million cut, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will get a $81 million cut. The deal actually increases clean energy and science funding by $17 million, increases the Department of Energy’s Office of Science funding by $42 million, and increases funding for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a program Trump wants eliminated, by $15 million (subscription). But funding for renewable energy programs was reduced by $808 million compared to the Obama administration’s budget request.
The Trump administration is not waiting for the 2018 fiscal year budget battle to make other cuts reflecting its budget priorities: on the eve of Saturday’s People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities, where tens of thousands of demonstrators sounded warnings about the Earth’s warming climate, the administration began diminishing climate-related information on government websites, deleting, for example, a climate change portal from the EPA website and adding new information about “energy independence.”
Notably, statements that “the evidence is clear” on climate change and that human activity is the phenomenon’s main driver—language that ran counter to the view EPA head Scott Pruitt put forth during an appearance on CNBC in March—were replaced by a message that the EPA website “is being updated.”
A web page on the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s regulation for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel-fired power plants, now routes visitors to an “energy independence” page focused on the Trump administration’s efforts to undo the plan.
“The first page to be updated is a page reflecting President Trump’s Executive Order on Energy Independence, which calls for a review of the so-called Clean Power Plan,” the agency stated. “Language associated with the Clean Power Plan, written by the last administration, is out of date. Similarly, content related to climate and regulation is also being reviewed.”
Although some of the deleted pages are still available through EPA’s search engine, they are no longer organized under a climate-change heading.
President Trump has also reflected his budget priorities with recent energy and environmental post appointments, most recently tapping Daniel Simmons, who has questioned the value of promoting renewable energy sources and curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, to oversee the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Simmons will serve as acting assistant secretary until someone is confirmed by the Senate for the post.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.