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Clean Air Act, Other Environmental Regulations Potentially Targeted by New Executive Order

On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an order that will require federal agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new rule and that will set an annual cap on the cost of new regulations with the exceptions of military and national security regulations. For fiscal year 2017, the cap will require that the cost of new regulations be completely offset by the rescinding of existing rules. Starting in 2018, the order directs the White House Office of Management and Budget head to give each agency a budget for increasing or decreasing regulatory costs.

Yet, legal experts suggest that the executive order could be impossible to implement because many regulations are required by laws written by Congress.

“It should be noted that no [executive order] can change underlying statutes adopted in the regular order by Congress and signed by the president,” Scott Segal, an industry lawyer at Bracewell LLP, told ClimateWire (subscription).

The new order comes on the heels of a Congressional Research Service study finding that the Clean Air Act’s regulatory structure “faces an unusual degree of uncertainty” this year, with one or more branches of government poised to weigh in on key existing EPA rules. Those rules include the Clean Power Plan, methane rules for new or substantially modified oil and gas operations, and EPA’s latest ambient air quality standards for ozone. Yet other rules could be vulnerable under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress 60 legislative working days from the time a federal regulation is finalized to pass a “joint resolution of disapproval” on the rule.

The House passed two bills on Wednesday invoking the seldom used Congressional Review Act to attempt to roll back the Stream Protection Rule and the Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring oil, gas and mining companies to reveal payments made to foreign governments. The rules were among five Obama administration regulations, including the Bureau of Land Management’s restrictions on methane emissions from flaring and venting during oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands, being targeted for reversal.

Trump has targeted specific regulations he believes hamper job growth, including the Waters of the U.S. Rule and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, which aims to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants but is under a Supreme Court stay.

Trump Nominates Supreme Court Justice; Some Cabinet Appointees Move Forward

President Donald Trump on Tuesday appointed 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch as his nominee to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant last February by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The decision, which has implications for environmental policy, comes as Trump promised—within two weeks of taking office.

Gorsuch’s parallels to Scalia were described by SCOTUSBlog writer Eric Citron as “eerie.”

“He is an ardent textualist (like Scalia); he believes criminal laws should be clear and interpreted in favor of defendants even if that hurts government prosecutions (like Scalia); he is skeptical of efforts to purge religious expression from public spaces (like Scalia); he is highly dubious of legislative history (like Scalia); and he is less than enamored of the dormant commerce clause (like Scalia),” Citron wrote.

Although Gorsuch hasn’t ruled on many environmental matters, Inside EPA reports that he has called for limiting the discretion of the EPA and other agencies to interpret their own authority. Last year, in Gutierrez-Brizuelo v. Lynch, Gorsuch indicated he was fine without Chevron deference, the legal doctrine granting government agencies interpretation of ambiguous statutes unless their interpretation of a statute is unreasonable.

“We managed to live with the administrative state before Chevron. We could do it again,” wrote Gorsuch in the majority opinion.

In that opinion, Gorsuch argued that the meaning of the law is for judges, not federal bureaucrats, to decide.

“Where in all this does a court interpret the law and say what it is?” Gorsuch said. “When does a court independently decide what the statute means and whether it has or has not vested a legal right in a person? Where Chevron applies that job seems to have gone extinct.”

Also this week, several of Trump’s cabinet picks—Department of Energy Secretary nominee Rick Perry, U.S. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions and Department of the Interior nominee Ryan Zinke—gained committee approval and now move forward for consideration by the full Senate.

All 10 Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is tasked with considering whether to move Scott Pruitt’s nomination to lead the EPA to the full Senate, opted to boycott the Wednesday meeting. They said Pruitt failed to provide substantive answers to questions about rules governing air pollution, toxic chemicals and lead in gasoline. But today, Republicans on the committee advanced Pruitt’s nomination on a party line vote after suspending committee rules because of the boycott.

Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, was confirmed by the Senate as the next Secretary of State by a 56-43 vote and was sworn in Wednesday evening. At his confirmation hearing, he acknowledged that the climate is changing but said that he believes science is not conclusive on the issue of how rising greenhouse gas emissions will affect life on Earth. He expanded on his views when providing written responses to questions posed by two senators.

“I agree with the consensus view that combustion of fossil fuels is a leading cause for increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he wrote to Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. “I understand these gases to be a factor in rising temperature, but I do not believe the scientific consensus supports their characterization as the ‘key’ factor.”

Study Says Carbon Capture Necessary to Meet Paris Agreement Goal

The global climate can survive the possible withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, said the authors of a study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. The bigger threat, they said, is a world without widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Absent those technologies, achieving the climate treaty’s goal to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius could be impossible.

The authors reached that conclusion by reviewing past energy trends and examining nearly 150 countries’ pledged carbon reduction targets in the context of more than 100 climate simulations indicating how changes in energy production and use through 2040 could meet the 2 degrees Celsuis goal. To deal with the mix of targets—among them, straight emissions reductions (for example, 30 percent by 2030), lowered emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP), and technology deployment (for example, expansion of renewables)—the study used the Kaya Identity method, which breaks the carbon dioxide emissions rate into the human factors that affect it—broad factors such as GDP and more specific ones such as quantity of deployed renewables.

The study paints a good news-bad news picture of progress toward the 2 degrees Celsius goal. It indicates that the rate of global emissions has leveled off over the last few years due to a reduction in coal burning by China, a shift from coal to gas and renewables plus increased industrial energy efficiency in the United States, rapid expansion of renewables in the European Union, and slowed GDP growth in the U.S., EU and China. But sustaining this trend of decreasing carbon intensity of energy will not be easy. Although renewables development is keeping pace with 2 degree Celsius scenarios, nuclear power is lagging and CCS is barely past the starting gate. Only a few CCS facilities are operational, and only a couple of dozen are in construction.

“The greatest challenge is the slower-than-expected rollout of technologies to capture and permanently store carbon from fossil fuel and bioenergy combustion,” said study co-author Robbie Andrew of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO). “Most scenarios suggest the need for thousands of facilities with carbon capture and storage by 2030, and this compares with the tens currently proposed.”

Thus far, high up-front costs have stymied development of commercial-scale CCS plants. If they don’t materialize, the world faces a harsh reality, suggests lead author Glen Peters of CICERO.

“If we don’t have CCS, then we will need to reduce use of fossil fuels much faster and in a much more disruptive way,” he said.

Study co-author Robert Jackson of Stanford University noted that CCS technology will prove even more crucial if President Donald Trump makes good on his pledge to revive the nation’s limping coal industry.

“There’s no way to reduce the carbon emissions associated with coal without carbon capture and storage,” Jackson said.

We may find out soon whether Trump will follow through on his pledge to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate deal when he issues an expected review of the U.S.’s involvement in multinational treaties.  InsideEPA lays out mechanisms through which the administration could do so (subscription).

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.