And it’s only Thursday
Within minutes of President Trump taking the oath of office last Friday, the official White House website was handed to the new administration and, with the transfer, all references to “climate change” were scrubbed: “Sorry, no results found. Try entering fewer or broader query terms.” (Try just “climate” and you’ll get “An America First Energy Plan” that promises to “eliminate harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan” by focusing on drilling and fracking for oil and gas, and trying (in vain) to resuscitate the coal industry.)
It’s the same for pretty much anything scientific: “Solar”: “Sorry, no results found.” “Science?” The lone result is a bio for a White House fellow who majored in political science. (If you’re feeling wistful, the Obama White House’s entire website, including its climate change page, is forever archived.)
If you were planning for the worst, hoping for the best, and expecting bumbling incompetence, the new administration’s swift, seamless suppression of factual statements from government agencies in recent days was surely alarming. But while you were busy retweeting @AltNatParkSer, you may have missed three major climate- and energy-related developments.
As Trump appointees arrived at their respective agencies for the first time Monday morning, perhaps none were less welcome—or more feared—than those stepping into the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters. The EPA transition team has been lead by Myron Ebell, one of the world’s loudest climate deniers, who has been scheming with (and paid by) the fossil fuel industry since the 1990s. On Monday, an “agency action plan” drafted by Ebell was leaked to Axios, and it spells some serious doom and gloom for the EPA. Right off the top, the Ebell plan calls for a 10 percent cut in the agency’s budget—or more than $800 million from grants to states and American Indian tribes—from climate programs and from environmental enforcement programs.
Perhaps more galling than the budget cuts is the retreat from science. Axios quotes the plan:
EPA does not use science to guide regulatory policy as much as it uses regulatory policy to steer the science. This is an old problem at EPA. In 1992, a blue-ribbon panel of EPA science advisers that [sic] 'science should not be adjusted to fit policy.' But rather than heed this advice, EPA has greatly increased its science manipulation.
Specifically, Ebell’s document suggested that the EPA should no longer fund scientific research, but rather depend on existing science (much of which would then be industry-funded, it’s worth noting). This would be a radical departure for an agency that was created by statute to use and utilize science as the foundation for all of its regulation and rulemaking. As William K. Reilly, who was head of the EPA under President George H.W. Bush, told Yale Environment 360, “Science is the secular religion underlying everything the EPA does.”
By all indication, Trump’s nominee Scott Pruitt will sail to confirmation to lead the agency. When he takes the reins from Ebell, he’ll run into thousands of employees who have dedicated their lives to protecting public health and the environment, and who aren’t so eager to undo their years of work to those ends. Pruitt might take some guidance from the recent Pew Research Center survey that found a strong majority of Americans believe that environmental regulations are worth the cost.
Rick Perry’s confirmation hearing was practically guaranteed to be awkward, given that the former Texas governor tried to prove himself fit to lead the very agency he once said he’d abolish. Then, just as he was scheduled to sit down before the committee, The Hill published a report that the Trump team was seriously considering massive cuts to the Department of Energy’s budget. Perry seemed surprised at the news, and offered a meek promise to try to defend the department. The Hill report on the government-wide budget cuts included this stunner:
At the Department of Energy, it would roll back funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels, eliminate the Office of Electricity, eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and scrap the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Did you catch that line about reducing carbon dioxide emissions? The proposed cuts are based on a blueprint from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has a long, shady history of perpetuating climate science denial and combatting renewable energy like solar and wind. The Heritage blueprint calls for staggering cuts across the budget—including funding for the Paris Agreement and payments to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s most authoritative body on climate science. But the DOE would see some of the fiercest slicing, and one department in particular that is critical to cutting our national carbon footprint would be dissolved entirely.
The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy supports crucial research on wind, solar, and energy efficiency, and the work being done today by EERE on renewables and efficiency is akin to the DOE’s earlier efforts developing the hydrofracking technology that ultimately unleashed the shale oil and gas revolution. (In the 1970s and 1980s, the Energy Research and Development Association, which later became the DOE, and the National Laboratories worked extensively, and at great taxpayer expense, to commercialize fracking, a fact that few allegedly free-market fossil fuel champions remember today.)
There’s no way to sugarcoat it—the wholesale elimination of the EERE would be a huge setback for the mainstreaming of solar and wind. But the carnage at the DOE goes beyond budget cuts. On Friday, within hours of taking office, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued a memo calling for a government-wide freeze on new or pending regulations. This would put a halt on, among others, four rules recently issued by Obama’s DOE that are aimed at increasing energy efficiency standards for certain energy-intensive goods like air conditioners and commercial boilers. These standards would save homeowners and business owners money, and reduce energy consumption and the related carbon emissions—as clear a win-win as exists in energy economics. If confirmed, Perry could still approve these regulations, but the freeze puts them back into political limbo.
If you haven’t heard, President Trump signed a few executive orders this week. One was aimed at restarting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects that had been stalled or rejected by the Obama administration. In the case of Keystone XL, the order encourages project owner TransCanada to resubmit its application. For the Dakota Access, Trump's decree directs the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite an approval process.
As National Resource Defense Council’s President Rhea Suh—and plenty of other environmental nongovernmental organizations—immediately promised, these orders will be fought tooth and nail by some of the nation’s best environmental attorneys. Executive orders don’t overrule Congress, so the statutes that have guided the permitting and approvals processes will be vigorously defended by the likes of NRDC and Earthjustice and the Sierra Club.
But the environmental litigation is already starting to feel like a game of whack-a-mole, as the assault on the executive agencies themselves gets underway. Right now, the least we can do is keep track of everything, lest this new era of dirty energy and climate denial starts to feel normal.