Today’s executive order (EO) – Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth – begins the process of rolling back almost every major pro-climate and clean energy initiative enacted by the Obama Administration. To the casual observer, it reads just like an industry wish list, as if Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Easter, and all the fossil fuel CEOs’ birthdays were rolled into one.
But while the champagne corks are certainly popping in Big Oil C-suites across the country, it’s important to understand that today’s EO doesn’t mean the end of major climate policies and initiatives in the US. It just means we go to plan B.
Namely, bold state and local initiatives. Bolstered by support from people like you.
But before we get there, it’s worth a quick look at the lowlights of the EO: what it targets and what it means.
The Clean Power Plan
What It Is: The first-ever federal standards regulating carbon pollution from US power plants, the sector responsible for close to 40 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Why It Matters: The EPA’s Clean Power Plan aimed to modernize a US power sector far too reliant on aging coal plants and radically cut the emissions driving the climate crisis. What was smart about the plan was that rather setting a one-size-fits-all approach for the entire nation, the EPA gave each state realistic targets for reducing emissions, based on each state’s own unique abilities and circumstances. Then the agency gave each state the freedom to decide how it would meet them.
The plan became the cornerstone of the US commitments to cut emissions 26—28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, promised in the Paris Agreement. But the benefits go far beyond cutting emissions. As states increasingly turned to clean energy sources like wind and solar to replace the dirty coal and gas plants pumping soot and other pollutants into the air thanks to the plan, analysts projected the cuts to air pollution could help prevent up to 3,600 premature deaths and 90,000 asthma attacks in children. Plus, the plan would catalyze even more job growth, adding thousands of jobs.
What the EO Says and What Happens Next: The EO instructs the EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan and walk away from its defense of the plan in the US Court of Appeals. The order also instructs the EPA to rewrite the plan’s new source performance standards for coal that call for new power plants to significantly clean up emissions.
For justification, the EO relies on what our friends at NRDC have termed “bogus accounting” in a report with all kinds of less than best practices and questionable methods by NERA Economic Consulting. Which just happened to be commissioned by the fossil fuel industry. The Union of Concerned Scientists, meanwhile, had two words for this report: “Not Science.”
What the administration doesn’t seem to realize, however, is that walking back a policy already on the books like Clean Power Plan takes more than a stroke of a pen. Especially after over 4.3 million Americans participated in making the plan, weighing in with comments, attending public forums, and more. The order begins a process to reverse this incredible feat of democracy, but it also will be fought in the courts for years and opposed when a new rule is proposed and opened for comments. And you can bet that we’ll be there.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Coal Leasing Moratorium and Methane Standards
What They Are: This part of the EO actually goes after multiple targets in a single sentence. The BLM’s coal moratorium was a temporary measure that halted new coal mining leases on public lands while the Department of the Interior conducted a feasibility study. The new source standards set guidelines forcing oil and gas facilities to limit methane leaks from pipelines and other operations.
Why They Matter: The first is pretty straightforward. Leasing federal lands for coal mining means we’re effectively selling public resources to the fossil fuel companies driving climate change. Not only does a great deal of this coal end up going overseas, but in many cases, the companies benefiting are able to stick taxpayers with the bill for environmental cleanup when they run into financial trouble.
Methane, meanwhile, is a powerful greenhouse gas 86 times more potent (over a 20 year period) than the carbon dioxide we hear so much about. And wasteful operations from oil and gas facilities are leaking enough gas to power 3 million homes each year. The new source guidelines were a first step to making the industry cut down on leaks from new facilities and begin cleaning up its act.
What the EO Says and What Happens Next: The EO tells BLM to lift the moratorium, opening public lands up for new coal mines once again. It also directs the bureau to review the new source guidelines.
As with the instructions for the Clean Power Plan, you can expect the environmental community to challenge these developments in the courts and inundate the bureau with comments calling for strong limits on methane leaks.
Social Cost of Carbon and National Environmental Policy Act
What They Are: The Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidance on greenhouse gases are two federal policies that effectively work together to ensure the government considers the big-picture costs of the carbon pollution coming from any proposed program – and then provides a tool to count these costs.
Why They Matter: These two measures compel policymakers to look at the long-term consequences of government activity and count the costs you don’t always see right away – costs like rising asthma rates in children and greater risk from devastating floods thanks to increased carbon pollution. Basically, they ask the government to factor in the climate to everything it does.
What the EO Says: The EO directs the Council on Environmental Quality to rescind NEPA guidance to consider the climate crisis in all government activities. It also asks an interagency group to reconsider the SCC, presumably with the goal of greatly lowering cost estimates. To put it another way: Climate crisis? What climate crisis?
Now for that Plan B
There is a silver lining here. With the federal government dropping the ball, the game shifts back to the states – and increasingly to cities. And several key states are stepping up in a big way. California – which, on its own, would be the world’s sixth largest economy – approved SB 32 in 2016, requiring the state to cut emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Washington State is aiming to cut emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. There are many more.
Plus, with even major corporations turning to clean energy more and more, we’re seeing emissions flatline without government mandates. We’re not talking niche either – the two biggest US users of solar are Target and Walmart, after all. Which tells you that there’s a profound shift underway, whatever happens in DC.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If you’re not a state legislator or forward-thinking CEO, what can you do when executive orders like this come down? The answer is simple: stand with millions of Americans to fight back.
We’ve already seen the incredible effect that people across the country standing together can have in blocking executive orders and making clear what we the people want from our government.
Join us and join Americans from all corners and all walks of life in standing to protect not only key climate policies like the Clean Power Plan, but the reality we live in and the values of hope, truth, and tolerance this country was founded on. Stand with Climate Reality and stand with truth. Stand with reality.