Environmental and Energy Executive Orders – Ever Expanding Exercise?

Posted on December 26, 2017 by John Milner

The presidential use of executive orders (EOs) is not a new practice but President Trump is using EOs to impact significant environmental and energy issues.  He is reported to be issuing EOs at the second-fastest rate of any modern Republican president, second only to President Eisenhower. This trend exists despite consistent criticism prior to being elected of President Obama’s EOs: “Obama … goes around signing all these executive orders.  It’s a disaster.  You can’t do it.”

What is an EO?  Here is a quick summary.  An EO is a directive issued by the president to federal governmental agencies.  The president may revoke, modify, or supersede any prior EO.  Presidents often undo the EOs of their predecessors, as President Trump has done a number of times with regard to EOs issued by President Obama.  Courts can declare an EO to be illegal or unconstitutional.  Congress can pass legislation overturning an EO, subject to the president’s veto authority.

In the environmental and energy areas, President Trump has issued the following EOs:

1.       “Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High-Priority Infrastructure Projects,” EO No. 13766, dated January 24, 2017.

The EO directs the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), within 30 days after a request, to determine a project’s environmental impact and decide whether it is “high priority.”

2.      “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs,” EO No. 13771, dated January 30, 2017.

The EO states that executive departments and agencies must slash two regulations for every one new regulation proposed. Regulation spending cannot exceed $0 and any costs associated with regulations must be offset with eliminations. The EO also directs the head of each agency to keep records of the cost savings, to be sent to the president.

3.      “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the U.S.’ [WOTUS] Rule,” EO No. 13778, dated Feb. 28, 2017.

The EO calls on federal agencies to revise a regulation put in place by President Obama called the Clean Water Rule or WOTUS. Published in 2015, WOTUS arguably expanded the number of bodies of water protected by the federal government to include certain streams, ponds, and smaller waterways that were not previously clearly covered.  The EO directs the administrator of EPA and the assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works to review WOTUS and propose a new one that either eliminates or revises the rule.

4.      “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” EO No. 13783, dated March 28, 2017

The EO directs EPA to review the Clean Power Plan (CPP) EO, signed by President Obama in 2014. In 2016, the Supreme Court granted a stay pending review in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia of the CPP, which aimed to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.  This EO also requires federal agencies to review any regulations that could “potentially burden the development or use” of oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources. Within 180 days, the agencies must submit reports to the Office of Management and Budget, which will take action to eliminate burdensome regulations.

5.      “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” EO No. 13795, dated April 28, 2017

The EO reverses a prior ban on Arctic leasing put in place under the Obama administration and directs the Interior Secretary to review areas available for off-shore oil and gas exploration.

6.      “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure,” EO No. 13817, dated August 15, 2017

The EO establishes “One Federal Decision” for major infrastructure projects, assigning each project a lead federal agency and creating a performance accountability system to track its progress.  It sets a goal of two years for the average completion time of the permitting process.  The EO also revokes Executive Order 13690, which mandated stricter environmental review standards in floodplains as part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.  That prior EO required planners to use flooding predictions that incorporated climate science.

The president may also issue proclamations, as well as presidential memoranda.  Like EOs, presidential proclamations and memoranda can have significant impacts.  For example, on December 4, 2018, President Trump issued a proclamation to substantially reduce the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah.  Additionally, the EPA administrator may issue directives to the agency staff that have important ramifications, such as Administrator Scott Pruitt’s October 16, 2017 directive to end so-called “sue and settle” judicial settlements relating to EPA regulations.

It appears that EOs and their related executive edicts have become the standard operating procedure for presidents and their appointees.  The pressure to have “instant impact” is due, in part, to the political division in Congress and the impatience and uncertainty of legislative action.  As always, “the buck stops” with the courts to deal with the issues created by these executive actions.  As we all know, judicial action can bog down resolution of these issues almost indefinitely.  There is no easy way out of this quagmire.



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