President Trump’s Coming War on Science: Environment Edition

Scott Pruitt testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 18, 2017.

On February 17, the U.S. Senate confirmed former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Observers can now expect the Trump administration—with Congress providing the wind at Administrator Pruitt’s back—to charge ahead with an aggressive agenda to weaken or nullify a decade’s worth of progress on pollution reduction.

President Donald Trump and Administrator Pruitt are likely to start off by announcing plans to dismantle the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever carbon pollution standards for power plants, and other components of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan. They may also attack an Obama-era rule to protect the nation’s waterways from pollution.

In addition to taking on specific environmental protections, President Trump and Congress are likely to pursue a more pernicious strategy to deny or obscure basic facts and science about climate change and assert new supposed truths that make it easier for oil companies and others to continue polluting without limit.

Trump disputes the economic impact of climate change

The Trump administration could issue an executive order to block the EPA and other agencies from using the social cost of carbon, or SCC, in rulemakings. The social cost of carbon is a “measure, in dollars, of the long-term damage done by a ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in a given year.” The SCC—currently set at $36 per ton—measures certain climate-related damage, such as loss of agricultural productivity, human health impacts, property damage from extreme weather and floods, and changes in energy costs.

Federal agencies use the SCC to quantify the benefits of rules that cut carbon pollution and, in turn, avert climate impacts. By nullifying the SCC, President Trump would be saying, in effect, that climate change has no cost to human health or the economy. Coastal property damaged by powerful storm surges? No cost. Lost work and school days due to increased incidence of asthma? No cost. Droughts that cause catastrophic losses in rural America? No cost.

Prodded by big corporations and their allies at industry-funded think tanks, Congress is likely to act on this as well. At the tail end of the 114th Congress, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) introduced legislation to permanently block agencies from assuming that carbon pollution has a cost.

Trump disputes whether carbon pollution endangers human health and the environment

In 2009, the EPA determined—based on the “full weight of scientific evidence”—that carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases, or GHGs, “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations.” This scientific determination, which followed a Supreme Court decision that greenhouse gases qualify as a pollutant under the law, unlocked the EPA’s authority to set carbon pollution standards for power plants, cars and trucks, and other sources.

Administrator Pruitt could decide to unwind this determination and, therefore, nullify the EPA rules that stem from it, including the Clean Power Plan and vehicle tailpipe standards. This would be a difficult task, as he would have to make the case that—contrary to the overwhelming scientific consensus about the potentially catastrophic impacts of unmitigated climate change—GHGs do not endanger Americans’ health and welfare. If he somehow is able to overcome this high threshold, he could then make the case that the EPA does not need to limit GHG emissions at all. This is the holy grail for polluters.

Congress also stands ready to legislate against scientific reality. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) introduced legislation to override thousands of scientists and the Supreme Court and conclude that greenhouse gases are not pollutants—and therefore outside of the EPA’s authority to set pollution limits.

Trump disputes the climate impact of big energy projects

Energy infrastructure projects, such as pipelines, have an inevitable—if incremental—impact on climate change because they can lock in energy use and transport for decades. The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their decisions—such as permitting a new pipeline or coal mine—and identify options for mitigating those impacts. In 2016, President Obama provided guidance to agencies for how to consider the potential climate impacts of proposed projects as a means to “identify practicable opportunities to reduce GHG emissions, improve environmental outcomes, and contribute to safeguarding communities and their infrastructure against the effects of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts.”

President Trump could—and is likely to—revoke this guidance and, with a stroke of the pen, ensure that federal environmental reviews would not provide a consistent accounting of climate impacts or a review of how to mitigate those impacts.

Trump disputes the need for independent, rigorous climate science

The Heritage Foundation, which had an outsized presence on the Trump transition team, released a budget blueprint that spells doom for scientific research and development at the EPA and other key agencies charged with pursuing climate science. Echoing candidate Trump’s promises on the campaign trail to “cancel” climate change spending, Heritage called for the elimination of nine climate-related programs at the EPA, including climate research funding.

Meanwhile, Congress is likely to resurrect several bills to undermine the EPA’s scientific integrity, including one to make it harder for the EPA to use peer-reviewed science and another to make it more difficult for the EPA to seek counsel from independent scientists.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, each of these efforts—and others likely in the pipeline at Pruitt’s EPA and in Congress—will do more than keep Americans in the dark about the impacts of climate change. They will make it harder for the EPA and other agencies—under future administrations—to make the legal and scientific case for tough standards to cut pollution or reduce energy use. That is the ultimate end goal of the oil companies, coal-fired electric utilities, and others that are pushing this agenda in the new administration and Congress.

Alison Cassady is Director of Domestic Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress.