On Tuesday, in a series of orders, Mr. Trump instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to rework its Clean Power Plan, which would restrict carbon emissions from existing power plants, mainly coal-fired ones. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court stayed enforcement of the CPP pending judicial review.
Mr. Trump also directed the Interior Department to lift its current moratorium on federal coal leasing and loosen restrictions on oil and gas development (including methane flaring) on federal lands. And he instructed all government agencies to stop factoring climate change into the environmental-review process for federal projects. The federal government will recalculate the “social cost of carbon.”
Because they don’t attack the climate-change regulatory problem at its root, Mr. Trump’s orders will not provide enough clarity to U.S. energy companies—particularly electric utilities and coal-mining companies—for their long-term business forecasting or short-term capital investment and head-count planning.
To accomplish that, the Trump administration, led by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, needs to target the EPA’s 2009 “endangerment finding,” which labeled carbon dioxide as a pollutant. That foundational ruling provided the legal underpinnings for all of the EPA’s follow-on carbon regulations, including the CPP.
It also provided the rationale for the previous administration’s anti-fossil-fuel agenda and its various climate-change initiatives and programs, which spanned more than a dozen federal agencies and cost the American taxpayer roughly $20 billion to $25 billion a year during Mr. Obama’s presidency.
The endangerment finding was the product of a rush to judgment. Much of the scientific data upon which it was predicated—chiefly, the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—was already dated by the time of its publication and arguably not properly peer-reviewed as federal law requires.
Although this initially reported “pause” was subsequently eliminated through the downward manipulation of historical temperature data, this latest IPCC assessment calls into question both the predictive power and input data quality of most global climate models, and further highlights the scientific uncertainty surrounding the basic premise of anthropogenic climate change.
An updated EPA endangerment finding based on an objective review of the latest available scientific data is warranted, along with a more sober discussion of the threat posed by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the “public health and welfare of current and future generations,” in the words of the original endangerment finding.
As long as the 2009 finding remains on the books, it will provide legal ammunition for environmentalists, academics and state government officials seeking to sue the administration for any actions related to climate change, including this week’s executive orders.
Issuing a new endangerment finding would be a bold move requiring thorough work, but the Trump EPA would be well within its legal rights to undertake such an updated review process. In Massachusetts v. EPA (2007), the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA the authority, but not the obligation, to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The EPA needs to “ground its reasons for action or inaction” with “reasoned judgment” and scientific analysis.
Addressing the 2009 endangerment finding head-on would show that Mr. Trump is serious about challenging climate-change orthodoxy. Thus far he has sent a mixed message, as demonstrated by this week’s ambivalence on CPP (reworking rather than repealing) and his administration’s silence on U.S. participation in the U.N.’s 2015 Paris Agreement.