Since Day 1 of the Trump presidency, the auto industry had been hoping to re-negotiate the deal it struck with the Obama administration on auto and light truck fuel efficiency standards (CAFE) for the period 2021 through 2026. On April 3, 2018, then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Agency was rolling back the previously agreed to targets—proving that in the age of Trump wishes can come true.
Now, nearly a year later, the auto industry is learning the meaning of the phrase be careful what you wish for; it just might come true. The bad news came to industry representatives in late February on a conference call with the White House. They were told that the Administration had cut-off any further conversations with California officials and was going ahead with its proposed Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule that freezing the standards at 2020 levels.
The freeze has been called the Trump administration’s most environmentally significant regulatory rollback yet" by the Rhodium Group following its penetrating analysis of the rule’s impact on the environment. The call is not surprising. The transportation sector has surpassed electricity as the major contributor of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere; and, Trump’s efficiency 36.9 mpg is standard is 14.5 mpg more lenient than Obama’s 51.4 mpg.
Before going into why the auto industry is unhappy about the freeze decision and the role played in all of this by California, a bit of background will help to set the stage.
Nontraditional alliances are forming to defeat local projects
I had coffee with my landlord—Mark— the other day. He asked me about an article in the Washington Post (WaPo). The piece was about environmental advocates opposing the site of a solar farm that is to provide Georgetown University with up to half its electric needs. He was surprised by the conflict and said he naturally assumed that solar energy developers and enviros are hand in glove with each other.
Mark asked if such conflicts happened often? More often than one would imagine, I replied. As to the “hand-in-glove” remark, I said something about it being true in a sense—if the gloves were for boxing and each side had a pair.
I think Mark’s assumption, that things are all good between solar developers and the environmental community is typical of most people’s understanding of the relationship between clean energy project developers and the environmental community. More to the point I don’t think enough attention is being paid to these kinds of local conflicts by big-picture thinkers in Washington.
Such conflicts promise to slow the transition to a low-carbon economy. Whether Green New Dealers or carbon taxers no allowance seems to be made for opposition to the projects needed to get the US off the fossil fuel standard. The parties to the conflicts are not just climate defenders and deniers.
Leadership has no age requirement
The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the voters of New York's 14th congressional district for having elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). I think it fair to say had AOC not been elected that climate change would still be vying for a place at the front of the pack of national political priorities. Today the causes and consequences of Earth’s warming are one of the top two or three policy issues talked about on Capitol Hill.
I would even venture that climate change is becoming one of the topics most talked about—or like religion and politics not to be talked about—around dinner tables. I credit the rising tide of youth activism for this rather sudden reversal of fortune.
What AOC, other newly elected House Democrats, and organizations like the Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats, Fridays For Future, have added to the mix is a new voice—a very large and loud voice—being heard around the world.
Notwithstanding years of opinion surveys showing climate and the environment as abstract matters of voter concern, these expressions seemed never to translate into sustained political action. Congress has been virtually inert on climate matters for over a decade. The boldest federal climate defense measures over the period have been the result of executive actions and judicial decisions.
Executive orders—as we’re seeing—are as easily erased by one president as they were first written by another. Litigation is lengthy, and the judiciary is limited in what it can order. With the rise of student activists and their close relationships with dynamic progressive Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez, it is possible that the pattern of the past is about to be broken. For Mother Earth, it has already been too long in coming.
Today’s tale is a cautionary one. It centers on the proposed Green New Deal (GND) and the possibility that Republican lawmakers may soon be compelled by circumstances to introduce their notions of a national climate policy. The GND has been the talk of Capital City since Democrats captured the House of Representatives and America’s youth took to the post-2018 election battlements.
Push-back on the GND by Republican climate change deniers and their conservative media allies has been both chiding and ferocious. At one level, all the deniers’ talk is about the technological infeasibility of converting the current fossil fuel economy to 100 percent renewables in a bit more than a decade. Deniers also speak of the impossibility of making every building in the US energy efficient—presumably within any time frame—and the cost of such an undertaking.
Republican attacks on the GND are not limited to technical feasibility and price. Fingers are being pointed at Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the growing number of progressives suspected of wanting to drag the nation into socialist territory. Mind you, not the genteel socialism of Scandinavia. Trump, as well as Republican operatives and conservative economists and news media presenters like Ben Stein and Hannity, claims the GND—its authors and endorsers—want to turn the US into a repressive red socialist state.
Dateline 20 February 2019
I am not a big believer in coincidence—fate maybe. In Capital City, there are no coincidences. There are always dots to connect in Washington. It’s naturally part of D.C.’s charm.
This morning I’ve found three dots that need connecting.
Dot 1: Late last week rumors were circulating that Dan Coats’s days were numbered—perhaps in the single digits, Coats is Trump’s Director of National Intelligence. The source of the rumors is Chris Ruddy, CEO of conservative Newsmax TV and a close confidant of Trump. Ruddy’s rumors, unlike the other Rudy’s, have shown themselves very reliable in the past.
A former Indiana Congressman and Senator, Coats is a respected Republican who has a habit of publicly speaking truths Trump doesn’t want to hear—especially about Iran, Russia, and North Korea. If maintaining his integrity on intelligence matters were not crime enough, Coats also happens to believe that climate change poses a threat to national security:
The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018….
Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages
The talk about town is Trump not only doesn’t like hearing much of what Coats has to say; he hasn’t been happy about what the Defense Department has to say about climate change and the future of the good ol’ USA—USA—USA. Coats was in cahoots with General Mattis and part of the now greatly diminished group of experienced advisors who knew how the game was played and was perhaps old-enough that Trump might them show them some respect---allowing them to be more honest with Old 45 than more junior staff. It was the theory anyway.
Climate defenders are finally getting our wish; climate change is on the front pages of newspapers and the lips of politicians of both parties. Social media is lit up with the talk of climate, and even late-night talk show hosts have gotten in on the act. This is what we’ve been waiting for--isn’t it?
The principal catalyst for this sudden turn-around in climate chatter is the Green New Deal (GND) that was proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in her successful Congressional bid. Since the Democrats have taken control of the House, the GND concept has gone viral and with it has come the demand for more specifics.
Responding to the call, Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) put pen to paper and drafted House Resolution 109 (H. Res. 109) Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. The Resolution, currently sponsored by 68 Democratic representatives, is only a placeholder for legislation that’s to be introduced months into the future. The Resolution has no legislative meaning and is non-binding. Release of the Resolution at a press event outside the Capitol has set-off a maelstrom of comments and criticisms across the climate defender-denier landscape.
I worry the announcement of H. Res. 109 and the events surrounding it—before and after—may end up doing more harm than good to the prospects of comprehensive climate legislation over the next 18 to 24 months. I understand the need for a rapid and broad-based response to Earth’s warming. I support a just transition. I agree that combatting climate change must occur on multiple fronts. In fact, there are few GND goals and objectives with which I disagree.
Nobody understands how the hell this is going to be addressed.
This is one of the most complex scientific problems that we've got in the world.
— John Dingell
Politics like most of life moves in a circle. I was reminded of this the other day when Senator Markey (D-MA) and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) stepped onto the Congressional stage to announce their proposed Green New Deal Resolution on the day John Dingell, Jr. died. A decade ago Dingell, Markey, and Speaker Pelosi were the actors in a different production. As the 111th Congress got underway, a fight over the leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was going on. Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Dingle had different ideas of national environmental policy. While Dingell fought to keep his chairmanship—a position he held from 1981-1995 and again for the two years of the 110th Congress—Pelosi wanted a change.
Dingell was a genuine force of nature throughout his nearly sixty years on Capitol Hill. The Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein wrote: Dingell has had a hand—a hugely constructive hand—in nearly every major advance in social policy over the past five-plus decades, including civil and voting rights, health, and the environment.
Although proudest of his role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), his environmental record is impressive by any standard. He either wrote or was instrumental in the passage of the: National Wilderness Act (1964); Water Quality Act (1965); National Environmental Policy Act; Endangered Species Act (1973); Natural Gas Policy Act (1978); Clean Air Act Amendments (1990); and Energy Independence and Security Act (2007). Dingell also took pride in having had his hands in the passage of Medicare and Medicaid. He was a supporter of single-payer healthcare long before Medicare for all.
Dingell used his power as Chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate irregularities at EPA during Anne Gorsuch’s ill-fated term as Administrator. Dubbed Sewergate, by the press, the incident involved the misuse of Superfund dollars by Rita Lavelle. Lavelle was indicted for contempt of Congress and ultimately served a year in prison on one count of wire fraud and two counts of lying to the FBI. Others he took down included Mike Deaver, a top Republican strategist for lying under oath and Stanford President Donald Kennedy for using federal grants to help pay for a 72-foot yacht.
A day before he died Dingell dictated a letter to his wife—the current member of a clan serving in House since Dingell, Sr. was elected in 1933. The Washington Post ran the letter My last words for America. Many of those words focused on today’s politics and the environment.
After I posted last week’s article Juliana v. US: For Children of All Ages/The Last Hurrah? the plaintiffs filed an Urgent Motion For a Preliminary Injunction. The motion asks the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to enjoin the federal government from authorizing the following activities through leases, permits, or other federal approvals:
The motion alleges much of what their original petition accused the federal government of doing in contravention of the plaintiffs’ rights to a habitable environment. The youthful plaintiffs in this instance are not asking the Court to enjoin the government from engaging in the enumerated activities permanently—but for a time that coincides with the Court’s decision on the government’s interlocutory appeal.
In lay terms, the plaintiffs are pushing back on the government’s continued efforts to prevent the case from going to trial. The Administration’s strategy these days is to go around trial and appellate court rulings by directly seeking relief from an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.
I’ve been writing about Juliana vs. US for over three years—slightly less time than the plaintiffs in the case have been waiting to have their day in court. To date, Juliana has turned not on the substantive scientific or constitutional questions the plaintiffs have asked the courts to answer but on such procedural issues as whether the 21 youthful petitioners have standing to sue, e.g., have they suffered an actual harm that a court can redress?
For Juliana, I believe the end is nigh—or at least can be predicted with some certainty. Based on the judicial events that have taken place since the middle of October 2018 the case is not likely to be won.
Over the course of the past several years, I’ve endeavored to give readers an understanding of the substance of the plaintiffs’ legal claim that they have a constitutional right to a habitable environment and their allegation that the federal government has actively abridged that right by favoring fossil fuels.
Equally, I have tried to present fairly the government’s counter-arguments that the problem of climate change, if it exists, is neither of its doing nor within the judiciary’s power to redress. It is, according to Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys, a matter for the legislative and executive branches of government to decide.
The number of climate-related lawsuits has been rising steadily over the last five years. Since Trump was elected, the trendline has gone vertical. Recent polls show a substantial majority of Americans recognize the realities of climate change, and an increasing number of respondents indicate they have personally experienced its effects.
Just today (2/7/2019) two simultaneous hearings on solving the climate crisis were held by the House Natural Resources and Energy and Commerce committees. It was the first time in nine and six years respectively that these committees had addressed the issue.
Under Republican control, years of committee time were wasted trying to prove what was happening in front of their eyes was a hoax. A week ago, Trump was tweeting that a few days of record cold was all the proof he needed to continue ordering his administration to roll back existing environmental protections and peddle the nation’s fossil fuels at home and abroad.
It is hardly surprising, given the failures of the legislative and executive branches of government, that the judiciary is being turned to as courts of last resort. Integral to the rising number of legal actions is the testing and refinement of the novel legal theories upon which they are based. Juliana is a case in point.
If the Juliana plaintiffs fail in their quest, it will not be because their arguments lack merit or their science is fake. Lawsuits are brought, argued, and decided within certain strictures. Like many things in life, there are rules to follow.
It is critical for climate defenders to understand why a case succeeds or fails in the courtroom for two basic reasons. The first is to carry the knowledge and experience forward when choosing the next case to pursue; the proposition is true whether the case just decided won or lost.
Things are getting back to what passes for normal in Capital City. The agencies shuttered by the longest government shutdown in US history are once again open. Whether they remain that way when the continuing resolution (CR) keeping them open passes its February 15th sell-by date is quite another matter. The odds of a second shutdown-showdown are admittedly slim. There are simply too many Republicans in Congress not wanting to face their constituencies—yet again—having to explain Trump’s manic attachment to a wall—whether of concrete or steel. However, we are talking about Donald John Trump and a feckless bunch of Republican Senators, so anything is possible.
The fallout from the month-long melee between Trump, Speaker Pelosi, and ultra-right political opinionators like Anne Coulter will take a toll on the environment in ways less obvious than cutting down protected trees in Joshua Tree National Park. Trump, as he twits endlessly, doesn’t like losing; a thing he seems to be doing a lot more of these days.
After two years in office, the president is still learning that politics—whether in the District of Columbia or Albian, Iowa—isn’t played like real estate or the casino business. The odds of rising from the ashes of a political bankruptcy in Washington are infinitesimal compared to Atlantic City. It is hardly surprising in a town whose motto is “if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.”
The fallout I’m speaking of here is Trump venting his pent-up frustration on the environment through the singular power of the presidency. One of the few things Trump can do with relatively little interference by Congress or the courts is to issue executive orders and directives demanding federal agencies like the US Departments of Energy, Interior, and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency prop up coal companies and clear the way for oil and gas pipelines.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.