Previewing Donald Trump’s Energy and Environmental Policies

It’s safe to say that under President Donald Trump’s administration, a lot is going to change for energy and environmental policies after eight years of President Barack Obama. Trump’s early choices for Cabinet heads – an oil company executive at the State Department, a pro-drilling former Texas governor for the Department of Energy, an outspoken critic of Obama-era climate regulations to head the Environmental Protection Agency – strongly hint at a shift toward more development of natural resources and less-restrictive environmental rules. But what exactly will be changing, especially at the beginning of the Trump administration?

Walking Back Obama Priorities

Admittedly, I don’t have a direct line to Trump Tower, so I can’t ask the Donald himself what sorts of new policies we should expect when he takes office next month. But I have been speaking with folks who know his advisers, or represent influential business groups, or understand the industries most likely to be affected. Here are the highlights of their comments.

Christopher Guith, a senior vice president for energy policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, believes the Trump administration will be busy undoing or modifying many of Obama’s policies and decisions. But some figure to change faster than others. Guith predicts that Trump will first go after certain executive orders Obama issued because they can be reversed right away by a new president.

That could include nixing the “social cost” of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that Obama instructed federal agencies to weigh when considering the costs and benefits of regulations that limit emissions of such gases. In essence, assuming that emitting greenhouse gases imposes hefty future costs on society in the form of climate change makes the benefit of limiting such emissions higher, thus making the economic impacts of various regulations easier to justify. Guith believes that Trump will “take a knife” to this policy.

Also look for action on Obama’s recent order to halt the issuance of new coal mining leases on federal lands. That move cheered environmentalists who want to see the U.S. produce and burn less coal, but infuriated the coal industry and states with big coal mining operations. Guith expects the moratorium to be “eviscerated” within weeks or months of Trump taking office.

(Incidentally, reopening federal lands to coal mining might not make an immediate difference for the coal industry’s bottom line. As I recently wrote, the industry is poised for a rebound in 2017. But its upside is probably limited in the long run.)

A recently issued Obama regulation that would make coal mining permits harder to get in the name of protecting streams from mining-related waste could also be on the chopping block. The Republican Congress could employ the seldom-used Congressional Review Act to kill the regulation, since there will soon be a pro-coal Republican in the White House who would probably approve such a measure. (The CRA doesn’t have much teeth when one party controls Congress and the other has the presidency, since the president who issued the regulation in question can veto any bill from Congress seeking to overturn it.)

Finally, look for a change in the EPA’s approach to dealing with lawsuits from environmentalists. Guith says that the Obama EPA often declined to defend itself from such suits because it agreed with the gist of the complaints and was content to go along with the resulting court orders. That “sue and settle” mentality will be a thing of the past under Trump, he thinks. Instead, the EPA will vigorously defend its policies in court.

One thing that probably won’t change right away is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which was designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. A legal challenge to the regs prompted the Supreme Court to order a halt to their implementation and give the Court a chance to hear the case. The outlook had been murky because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. But with Trump likely to appoint a conservative replacement, there is a good chance that the Supreme Court will eventually strike down at least part of the CPP, forcing the EPA to go back to the drawing board on regulating carbon. That’s a process that could take quite a while to play out.

Drill, Baby, Drill?

So much for what Trump might undo. What will he do?

To answer that, I checked in with David Holt, president of the Consumer Energy Alliance, a trade association composed primarily of big energy users, as opposed to producers. When I spoke with him in the immediate wake of Trump’s victory on Nov. 8, he said to look for the new president to expedite and support more energy infrastructure such as pipelines, and authorize more oil and gas drilling in areas such as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As Holt sees it, the widespread growth of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is nothing short of an “energy revolution” for the U.S. And he believes Trump fully intends to encourage that revolution to foster job creation.

White House support for expanded drilling and pipeline construction could set off a backlash among foes of such development. Holt’s primary concern is that, with the federal government less likely to limit or block energy-related development, activists in the environmental movement will resort to sabotage or civil disobedience to thwart new projects. The months-long protest of the nearly completed Dakota Access Pipeline System in North Dakota could be a sign of more-aggressive activism to come.

(Trump looks likely to grant the final easement needed to complete the DAPS project. And even the stillborn Keystone XL pipeline to connect Canada’s oil sands region with U.S. refiners could gain new life in the Trump administration. If so, buckle up for a major showdown between green groups and the White House.)

Speaking of environmentalists, I’ve been calling some of them to get their take on the incoming administration. So far, no one has been willing to talk, giving the impression that a lot of these folks are still sizing up Trump themselves and don’t yet know what to expect from him. Odds are they’ll become more talkative when Trump takes office and begins implementing policies that they disagree with. But here’s one early prediction: The confrontations will be frequent and acrimonious.