Trump Unveils New "Energy Independence" Executive Order

30 March 2017

US President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday 28 March targeting a series of Obama-era environmental actions, arguing that this will facilitate a move toward energy independence and shore up domestic economic growth.

The document, signed at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), includes a series of steps that would either review, undo, or otherwise put on hold different elements within former President Barack Obama’s domestic climate agenda.

This includes targeting Obama’s landmark “Clean Power Plan,” which required existing American power plants to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by nearly one-third relative to their 2005 levels by the year 2030. The implementation of the plan, which faced numerous court challenges, has since been deferred pending clarification on certain legal elements. (See Bridges Weekly, 5 June 2014)

Trump has directed his EPA Administrator to “review” the Clean Power Plan and related policies, with a view to potentially suspending, changing, or revoking them. The EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, was previously the attorney-general for the US state of Oklahoma and had been among those pursuing legal action against the Clean Power Plan.

“Perhaps no single regulation threatens our miners, energy workers, and companies more than this crushing attack on American industry,” said Trump on Tuesday in unveiling the executive order, referring specifically to the Clean Power Plan.

Analysts say that this will likely take some time to unfold, given the usual requirements under federal rulemaking processes and the likelihood of legal cases. In addition, Trump has directed the EPA Administrator to review the “legal memorandum” associated with the Clean Power Plan and act accordingly, including on how his office addresses the existing court cases on the subject.

Trump has also directed all relevant government agencies to review any actions they have in place which could “potentially burden the safe, efficient development of domestic energy resources,” with a final report due within 180 days of the executive order.

The new US leader, who had repeatedly targeted these climate-focused environmental actions while on the campaign trail, argued that his new executive order would help create jobs and lift the burden on industry from having to meet the previous regulations.

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal. We're going to have clean coal – really clean coal. With today’s executive action, I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” said Trump on Tuesday.

The document also undoes one Obama executive order and three presidential memoranda on climate change. The first of these, Executive Order 13653, had directed federal agencies to incorporate climate-related considerations into their work, issuing “comprehensive plans” on this subject.

The presidential memoranda include one memorandum on carbon pollution standards and regulations for power plants; one memorandum directing various federal agencies to ensure that economic development efforts do not have excessive negative impacts on natural resources; and a final memorandum integrating climate change into US national security considerations.

In addition, Trump’s order rescinds two reports, including Obama’s Climate Action Plan of 2013 and a separate document released a year later on methane emissions. Among other items, the Climate Action Plan had confirmed the US’ intent and objectives for participating in the Environmental Goods Agreement (EGA), a tariff-cutting deal that is being negotiated among a group of WTO members.

What this might mean for the EGA is not yet clear at this stage. While ministers attempted to conclude a deal late last year, those efforts ultimately stumbled, with the next steps not yet confirmed. (See Bridges Weekly, 8 December 2016)

Other actions included in Tuesday’s presidential action include removing an earlier federal prohibition on granting leases for coal-related production efforts, as well as reviewing the earlier policy of using the “social cost of carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane” in developing new government regulations.

Keystone pipeline gets permit

The news came within days of the Trump administration’s decision to grant a permit for building the Keystone XL pipeline, a cross-border project that would transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the United States.

After years of debate, delay, and environmental reviews, the previous Obama administration had denied a pipeline permit to TransCanada, the Canadian oil giant asking to build the project, citing concerns over the pipeline’s climate change impacts and limited long-term economic gains. (See Bridges Weekly, 12 November 2015)

Following the new administration’s move to allow Keystone to move forward, TransCanada and the United States have “discontinued” an investor-state dispute under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which the Canadian company had launched against Washington in 2016 after the Obama administration’s decision to block the pipeline. (See Bridges Weekly, 14 July 2016)

Eyes on Paris climate deal

While Trump’s executive order makes no reference to the future of the US’ international climate agenda, speculation abounds as to what this will mean for Washington’s commitments under the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change, an international accord adopted in 2015.

The landmark climate deal entered into force last November. (See Bridges Special Update, 6 November 2016)

Indeed, some leaders such as EU Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete have already asked publicly what Trump’s new executive order means on the global stage.

“We regret the US is rolling back the main pillar of its climate policy, the Clean Power Plan. Now, it remains to be seen by which other means the United States intends to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement,” said Cañete in a statement to multiple news media outlets.

Similar concerns have also been raised by the private sector over the past several months. Notably, the US-based oil giant Exxon Mobil recently sent a letter to the Trump administration asking that it keep the country in the Paris Agreement.

According to excerpts printed by the Financial Times this week, the company argues that it “is prudent that the United States remain a party to the Paris agreement to ensure a level playing field, so that global energy markets remain as free and competitive as possible.” 

ICTSD reporting; “Exxon urges Trump to keep US in Paris climate accord,” FINANCIAL TIMES, 29 March 2017; “Trump names Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma attorney general suing EPA on climate change, to head EPA,” WASHINGTON POST, 8 December 2016; E.U. leader expresses ‘regret’ over Trump’s climate order, says ‘the world can count on Europe’,” WASHINGTON POST, 28 March 2017; “Trump’s big new executive order to tear up Obama’s climate policies, explained,” VOX, 28 March 2017; “EU leads attacks on Trump’s rollback of Obama’s climate policy,” THE GUARDIAN, 28 March 2017.

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