Executive Order Undermining Climate Solutions Threatens Progress for Wildlife

Photo by Ed Lyman
Sea turtles will run out of habitat to breed if climate changes impacts and sea level rise are not addressed.  Photo by Ed Lyman, NOAA

The Administration put forth a sweeping executive order that aims to reverse federal progress in the effort to protect wildlife from the impacts of climate change.  In particular, the Administration is targeting the Clean Power Plan — the first ever federal limit on carbon pollution from power plants — but it seeks to dismantle multiple policies designed to  reduce and account for carbon pollution that harms wildlife.  There is wide public support for such policies.

TAKE ACTION:  Urge your Senators and Representative to oppose any rollback in measures that address climate change, and to support efforts that protect people and wildlife from environmental harm.

On the heels of one of the warmest Februaries on record, it is increasingly important for wildlife and habitat that we take action to reduce harmful carbon pollution.  Without action, wildlife will suffer from more intense severe weather events, sea-level rise, acidifying oceans, increased droughts and floods, invasive species, more destructive and frequent forest fires, shifting and disappearing habitat, intensifying pollution events like algal blooms and other devastating harms.

What the Executive Order Does

The order rescinds the nation’s Climate Action Plan and related policies designed to put America on a path to be a world leader in reducing harmful greenhouse gas pollution and developing a robust, clean energy economy.  It also:

  • Seeks to dismantle the Clean Power Plan – a rule promulgated as a result of Supreme Court decisions that would reduce emissions from the U.S. power sector, the second largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, by 32% over the next 13 years.

    Animals like Pika that depend on cool, high altitude habitat may run out of space and luck without action to curb carbon pollution. Photo by Stephen Torbit
    Animals like Pika that depend on cool, high altitude habitat areas may run out of space and luck without action to curb carbon pollution. Photo by Stephen Torbit
  • Instructs the EPA to rewrite or rescind standards that would reduce carbon pollution from new power plants, an action connected to the Clean Power Plan.
  • Directs the Attorney General to stop defending the Clean Power Plan and new plant rule in court, where it is currently being considered by the D.C. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Executive Order also seeks to undo other pillars of the nation’s climate policy, which has helped lower emissions and wildlife. It has a broad provision aimed at paving the way for more fossil fuel development by directing agencies to review all policies that may “burden” such fossil fuel development, and then “suspend, revise, or rescind” such regulations.  This will likely include many regulations and other actions that protect wildlife and habitat from the harms of fossil fuel development, including carbon pollution, mercury pollution, harmful ozone, acid rain, water quality,  and storage of toxic materials like coal ash.

The order furthermore rescinds actions that direct agencies to account for the climate change costs.  This would deny decision-makers and the public important information needed to plan for climate change and its high costs.  The Executive Order:

  • Disbands an interagency working group convened to provide guidance on the “social cost of carbon” and tosses out detailed documents that help agencies account for climate impacts.  The social cost of carbon is a well supported tool agencies use to determine the damages and costs actions they take may have in net agricultural productivity, human health, property damages from increased flood risk, and changes in energy system costs due to climate change.
  • Requests that the Council of Environmental Quality rescind a guidance that instructs agencies to broadly account for the climate change impacts of their actions in required environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act in order to ensure that the true costs to people, communities and wildlife are known before federal actions are taken.

The Executive Order furthermore broadly directs EPA to “suspend, revise, or rescind” a rule that reduces methane pollution — a potent greenhouse gas — from new and modified oil and gas operations.  It also orders the Department of Interior to:

  • Lift a moratorium on new federal coal leases and “amend or withdraw” an order calling for a needed comprehensive review of the impacts of the federal coal leasing program occurs.  In response to the order, Interior Secretary Zinke issued a department order lifting the moratorium and ending the review process.
  • Re-write or rescind a rule designed to protect water on public and tribal lands from fracking.
  • Re-write or rescind the a commonsense and affordable rule to prevent the waste of harm methane pollution from oil and gas operations.

The Executive Order’s Immediate Impacts

The President has limited power under executive orders, so it is important to note what precisely the Executive Order does and does not do.

  • Climate Action Plan: The Climate Action Plan and similar policy documents are effectively rescinded by the Executive Order are no longer the policy of the United States.  This effectively undermines the nation’s commitment to cut its carbon pollution by 26-28% by 2025.
  • The Clean Power Plan:  Because the Clean Power Plan is a rule that was properly promulgated under the Clean Air Act, the Administration can not just cancel the rule.  What the order instead does is ask EPA to stop defending the current rule in court and re-write or rescind it.  The court may continue to hear the case concerning the current rule regardless of the Administration’s request, but it is probable the court will grant the Administration’s request.  To re-write or rescind the rule, EPA  must again go through notice and comment rulemaking, and must put forth a rule that is reasonable response to the 2009 Clean Air Act finding that carbon dioxide endangers health and welfare, or be able to justify rescinding the rule.  The new rule’s adequacy, or a decisions to rescind the rule altogether, can then be challenged in court.  This process can take some time, perhaps several years.  Thus, EPA cannot just walk away from its responsibility to regulate carbon pollution.
  • Regulating Methane Pollution and Waste:  The Executive Order asks that the Bureau of Land Management re-write or rescind regulations governing the waste of methane gas (a powerful greenhouse gas) on public and tribal lands.  It similarly orders EPA to re-write or rescind sensible rules limiting methane pollution from new and modified oil and gas operation sources.  As with the Clean Power Plan, these regulations can only be replaced through formal notice and comment rulemaking, a lengthy process.  The new rules — or decision to rescind such rules — can be challenged in court.
  • Coal Leasing Moratorium:  The Executive Order asks the that Bureau of Land Management lift a moratorium on coal leasing placed by the previous Administration last year.  The moratorium served to halt new leases from being locked in until the program overhaul occurred.  It is important to note that current leases provide about 20 years of mining activity, so new leases are not needed to support current jobs or mining.  Subsequent to the Executive Order being issued, Interior Secretary Zinke issued a department order lifting the moratorium and ending the process to reform the coal leasing program.  The coal leasing process is out-of-date, doesn’t account for the full costs of coal leasing to wildlife, communities and the environment, and is unfair  to tax payers, issues the reform effort was designed to address.  Litigation has already been filed challenging the Department’s action.
  • Social Cost of Carbon:  The social cost of carbon is a sound and well-supported methodology agencies use to measure the of carbon costs from projects.  Unlike the Clean Power Plan, it was not adopted pursuant to rulemaking and the Administration has much greater latitude direct agencies to stop using it — so it is effectively no longer Administration policy to use this method.  However, there is ample case law that the impacts of climate change must be accounted for  in making decisions under aspects of several environmental laws.  Agencies still must account for carbon pollution impacts in many circumstances and must do so in a reasonable manner that will hold up in court.
  • CEQ Climate Change Guidance: The guidance document is also not a rule and can be undone by executive order.  However,  case law makes clear that agencies must consider climate change impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act – a statute that  requires agencies to take a hard look at the impacts of their actions before proceeding.  Thus, while the guidance provided strong and consistent direction for agencies to consider climate change impacts when evaluating federal actions, agencies still must consider these impacts, although without the guidance such consideration may be less consistent from agency to agency and project to project.

Seeking to Dismantle the Clean Power Plan

The Administration's order seeks to dismantle sensible limits on polluting power plants. Photo from usgs.gov
The Administration’s order seeks to dismantle sensible limits on polluting power plants. Photo from usgs.gov

The Clean Power Plan is an affordable and sensible response to EPA’s obligation under the bipartisan Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  The plan is crucial to the nation’s ability to fulfill international obligations to keep carbon emissions at levels that are safe for wildlife.

A recent study has shown that repealing the Clean Power Plan would increase emissions and cost the U.S. economy nearly $600 billion dollars and result in 120,000 premature deaths, largely because the lower carbon energy sources the plan would spur decrease other harmful pollution that can cause direct health impacts.

In addition to reducing climate risks, the cleaner energy that would be spurred by the Clean Power Plan benefits wildlife by resulting in less mercury, acid rain, coal ash, harmful thermal discharges and other threats that dirtier energy sources, like coal, cause.  A weaker plan, or no plan, only serves to hurt wildlife, the economy and human health.

It is worth noting that this attempt to dismantle the Clean Power Plan comes on the heels of an earlier order to cancel the next round of fuel efficiency standards and greenhouse gas improvements for cars and light trucks – another move that stalls important progress in reducing carbon pollution that is harmful  to wildlife.

 Progress at Risk

Prior to these rollbacks, impressive progress was being made in reducing harmful carbon pollution, in large part because of market forces bringing on line affordable, responsible clean energy like wind and solar.  According to EPA, by the end of 2015, emissions sources that would have been covered by the Clean Power Plan had achieved carbon emission levels 24 percent below 2005 levels.  This means that for 24 states, emissions from their sources in 2015 were lower than their 2022 first-year annual goal under the plan.

These trends have continued through 2016: For the period from January through September 2016, power plants reported CO2 emissions to the EPA that were about 8 percent lower than emissions during the same nine-month period in 2015.

However, without a driver like the Clean Power Plan to steer markets, it is uncertain these favorable trends will continue.

Federal policies are needed to help spur job creating clean, responsible energy sources like wind and solar power. Photo by Deepwater Wind
Federal policies are needed to help spur job creating clean, responsible energy sources like wind and solar power. Photo by Deepwater Wind

What’s the Administration’s Plan?

The order will take a while to implement and the obligation to regulate carbon cannot simply be discharged by executive fiat.  It is also almost certain that the process to unravel the Clean Power Plan and vehicle standards will face stiff legal challenges and political blow-back.

In the meantime, the Administration needs to demonstrate how it plans to confront the climate crisis and uphold legal obligations to regulate carbon pollution.  It is hard to describe this order as anything other than a broad scale assault on federal climate policy and progress to reduce harmful pollution that harms wildlife and threatens the outdoors.  This order, in addition to recent statements by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejecting the scientifically established role of carbon dioxide as a primary cause of climate change, call into question whether the Administration is listening to science and the broad number of Americans who want action to address climate change.

It is critical for wildlife that progress continues to be made.  Absent strong federal action to replace climate actions impacted by today’s orders, states, regional and private players like large corporations must fill the gap for the time being for pushing for clean, responsible energy like wind and solar.

But our ultimate success in protecting wildlife from climate change depends on federal action — ideally a market-based price on carbon.  Such action is good for the economy, good for air and water quality, good for those that love the outdoors, and good for wildlife.

In the wake of this Executive Order, the Administration and Congress must now step up and put forth their plan to protect wildlife, promote clean energy, grow jobs and keep climate change in check.

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