With the swoop of a pen, President Donald Trump is set to dismantle what Barack Obama once hoped would be one of his administration's defining legacies: aggressive environmental protection.
Trump will sign a sweeping executive order Tuesday that will require the Environmental Protection Agency to review the Clean Power Plan, a crucial Obama initiative that aimed to cut power plants' pollution, a senior White House official said Monday. The order will also rescind several Obama-era environmental protections, such as a moratorium on leases for mining coal from federal land and the requirement that federal officials consider the "social cost of carbon" emissions when making decisions.
The goal of the order, the White House official said, was to further domestic energy production, protect jobs, and ensure that the EPA sticks to what the Trump administration believes to be its core mission: protecting clean air and water. It will serve as a blueprint for the Trump administration's energy and environmental policies.
For the Trump administration, the Clean Power Plan goes beyond the EPA's mission and puts American jobs at risk. Intended to reduce emission levels more than 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the plan never actually took effect — thanks to a lawsuit brought in part by the now-EPA chief Scott Pruitt, the Supreme Court halted it. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard arguments on the lawsuit back in November, but its judges have yet to issue an opinion.
But this order doesn't mean that lawsuit is over, since the Clean Power Plan isn't going to disappear overnight.
"For any [revision] of the Clean Power Plan, we would also expect a lengthy process by which the public has an opportunity to comment," said Sanne Knudsen, an environmental law professor at the University of Washington. (The original Clean Power Plan received over 4 million comments.) "Those processes can take a few years... And then at the end of the process, we would expect to see judicial review and litigation."
If the Trump administration instructs the Department of Justice to stop defending the Clean Power Plan in court, Knudsen said, there are a number of states and environmental groups that could step up to maintain the legal battle. The White House is prepared for that possibility, the official said.
A drawn-out legal war seems all but certain, since many environmental groups are already protesting the executive order. "The safeguards Trump wants to shred — like the Clean Power Plan — are on a strong legal footing and the public will have the chance to voice its objections as the Trump administration tries to roll them back," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.
States may also take steps on their own to improve their carbon emissions. Even without the Clean Power Plan, an Environmental Defense Fund analysis found that 18 states are already on track to hit the plan's 2030 emissions reduction targets.
The order will also require a review of Bureau of Land Management regulations that limit hydraulic fracking on public lands.
Other parts of the order, such as ending the coal-leasing moratorium, will be easier to enact. Usually, executive orders, presidential memorandum, or administration directives don't need to be reviewed — Trump can just rescind them immediately.
Many of the executive order's directives will help Trump keep his campaign promise to bring coal industry jobs back, the White House official said. Thanks to cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources, coal-fired plants shuttered across the country.
The order won't address the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, which saw 195 countries pledge to decrease climate change-inducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to the senior White House official. Though Trump campaigned on the promise that he would "cancel" the Paris agreement — and Pruitt called it "just a bad deal" on Sunday — the official said that the administration is still discussing what to do about it.
Yet if the EPA ends up rewriting or rescinding the Clean Power Plan, it may not matter. Even if the United States stays in the Paris agreement in name, ending the plan would effectively gut the country's ability to meet its Paris pledge.