Posted on November 18, 2016 by Dick Stoll
Q: What two things do Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and George Pataki have in common?
A: (1) None of them ever claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax; and
(2) Every one of them promised to revoke the Obama Clean Power Plan (CPP) if elected.
How Bad Is Bad?
I’ll come back to the CPP. But first, the question so many are asking: how terrible is Mr. Trump’s election going to be for the environment? Let me begin by reminiscing. In 1980, I was in EPA’s Office of General Counsel when the “killer trees” President was elected. I don’t remember actual tears in the office the next day, but people were pretty distressed and many were threatening to leave the agency.
Things really did look bad for a while. Remember Anne Gorsuch Burford, Rita Lavelle, James Watt and many others with similar agendas? But then remember the intense and angry public reaction when it appeared that core environmental protections for clean air and clean water were in jeopardy. These people were forced out of office. William Ruckelshaus returned at the top of EPA, and the ship was essentially righted.
With that history as a guide, I don’t think the Trump Administration (disclosure: I neither supported nor voted for him) will try to make any significant changes to the vast bulk of protective air, water, waste, etc. rules now on the books. I once calculated there are over 20,000 pages of EPA regulations in the C.F.R. That’s millions of words. I think that after four years of a Trump Administration, fewer than 1% of those words will be deleted or amended.
Now back to the CPP. I am pretty sure that will fall into the 1%. Others have written about what might happen to the CPP on judicial review and I won’t try to add to that guessing game. The key thing to remember is that the CPP is currently stayed by the Supreme Court, and that stay will remain in effect until any final Supreme Court disposition – which will be many months from now.
There is a good chance that the Trump EPA will not wait for any final judicial review but rather will soon undertake a rulemaking to revoke at least the more far-reaching and controversial elements of the CPP (i.e., the provisions “going beyond the fence-line” to force wind and solar in place of coal). As explained in one of my recent blogs, there would be no need to develop a new factual record in such a rulemaking. So this process may take a couple of years, but for much of that time the CPP will remain blocked by the Supreme Court stay and the earliest CPP standards aren’t scheduled to take effect until 2022.
As also explained in my blog, thanks to a recent 3-0 D.C. Circuit opinion authored by Judge Merrick Garland (and the Supreme Court precedent that he relied upon), those in the Trump EPA should have smooth sailing on judicial review if they take the time to clearly articulate their policy and legal rationale.
And what would public reaction be to such actions? Cutting the most controversial parts out of the CPP would not jeopardize the legal basis for core clean air and water protections as the early Reagan cutbacks were perceived to do. So even if revisions to the CPP provoke lots of noise from traditional public interest groups opposing any cut-backs in GHG regulation, that noise may not resonate much with a general public much more interested in jobs, health care, and public safety.
Public reaction could be far different, though, if – as indicated in some press reports — the Trump EPA were to go beyond significantly cutting back on the CPP and deploy a nuclear option: reversing the Obama EPA’s 2009 GHG “endangerment finding.” By doing this EPA would be trying to free itself of any obligation to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. (Note: I am not addressing the more limited August 2016 aircraft emission endangerment finding.)
I think such a reversal would be extremely unwise. First, I think it would be far more vulnerable on judicial review than a significant CPP cutback. Reversing the finding would require the building of a massive new factual record. And with the growing scientific consensus that man-made GHGs are causing at least some adverse effects, even conservative judges may have difficulty upholding such a decision.
Second, having EPA in effect deny there is any climate problem from air emissions could more easily foment the kind of intense and angry public reaction that the early Reagan EPA suffered. Recall from the above that none of the other Republican candidates gunning for the CPP ever said global climate was a Chinese hoax.
Finally, I believe such a reversal is entirely unnecessary as a legal matter. As long as EPA keeps some form of GHG controls on the books, it will have carried out its legal obligations stemming from the endangerment finding. Nothing in the CAA or any judicial decision requires that the degree of GHG regulation be driven by an endangerment finding. There is nothing remotely like the MACT mandate to achieve limits being met by the best 12% in a source’s category. In short, EPA does not need to touch the endangerment finding to accomplish the goal of amending the CPP to remove its more far-reaching and controversial provisions.
More Targets and Concerns
Getting back to the basic question of how much the Trump EPA may change things, there will certainly be more rules targeted in the 1% — the Obama Clean Water Rule for almost sure. And there are valid concerns about how much EPA’s funding and enforcement efforts may be cut back even if most rules stay on the books. Spoiler alert: I may do blogs on these topics soon.
But my main concern for people at the Trump EPA now is that they remember what happened when the Reagan EPA tried to de-regulate in a manner that was perceived as threatening core values of clean air and clean water.