Wouldn’t it be great if we could put questions of climate policy directly to voters? It would be like an
opinion poll with teeth and consequences. ----- JBernard
The 2016 election of President Trump and Republican congressional majorities has made crystal clear the vulnerability of federal climate policies and programs to shifting political winds. Hardly a secret, the partisan nature of the global warming debate has never been as much in evidence as it is today.
The climate-science community now anticipates the world crossing the 1.5-degree threshold sometime around 2040—60 years ahead of the Paris climate accord’s (Accord) end of century target. A record hardly to be proud of but one which it is essential to keep in mind.
At a time when emission reductions need speeding up, the US is being led by a president and political party in denial; a group foppishly opposed to environmental regulation and committed to coal and other fossil fuels contrary to the interests of the environment and the economy.
Resistance to the Administration’s rollback of existing environmental protections to an earlier time travels two primary paths:
Q. What if a government refused to comply with a court order directing it to put into place a climate recovery plan that would reduce emissions sufficiently to stay below the 1.5 degree Celsius?
I have been writing a lot lately about the rising number and variety of environmental lawsuits being filed in state and federal courts. The hundreds of active climate-related cases exhibit a wide range of purpose. Some are asking a judge to overturn EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s summary suspension of an existing environmental regulation without the due process of law. In other cases, a criminal defendant is attempting to justify shutting down an oil pipeline as necessary to avoid a greater harm being done to the community. State and local governments have even begun asking the courts to hold oil companies financially accountable for the damage they do to their communities by emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide.
Recourse to the courts is a predictable response to the failure of government—especially the federal government—to construct and maintain a strong and stable bulwark against the increasing threats of climate change. Courts in the US are not alone in seeing an uptick in legal actions.
Judicial bodies around the world are being asked to elevate environmental sustainability to a fundamental human right and to order their governments to be more aggressive environmental protectors of nature and society.
The election of Donald Trump as president and Republican congressional majorities in 2016 has made crystal clear the vulnerability of federal climate policies and programs to shifting political winds. Although hardly a secret, the partisan nature of the global warming debate has never been as much in evidence as it is today.
The 115th Congress began rolling back Obama era environmental protections even before Donald John was sworn into office. From his first days in the Oval Office (#djtintheoffaloffice), Trump has been:
Legal actions questioning the diligence of governments and the culpability of fossil energy companies were being filed long before Trump came to town. Juliana v U.S., a case in which the plaintiffs are claiming a constitutional right to a habitable environment, was first filed against the Obama administration.
Trump’s election and the Republican’s capture of both the House and Senate, however, has ushered in an open hunting season on federal climate-related policies and programs. Any attempt to have legislation for the protection of the environment introduced into the current Congress is dead on arrival—as is any request of the White House.
Ever since the election of Trump as president and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, climate defenders are whistling past the White House and Congress.
The lack of a realistic political option (Plan A) has naturally caused climate defenders to pursue their objectives in court (Plan B). In the grander scheme things, however, the legal option is less than optimal. As will be explained further on Plan B's inherent weaknesses suggest the need of a Plan C.
The Senate is scheduled to be open for an additional 32 days. It’s not that the upper chamber works harder or has more to think about than the House, it’s more a reflection of a mistrust of the president—particularly this President. As long as the Senate is technically in session, the chance for Trump making interim appointments drops pretty much to zero.
I thought it helpful to provide a rundown of the remaining legislative days’ events and offer a bit of commentary about what Congress and the White House/executive branch will be doing between now and November. Having some idea of what our elected leaders and representatives are likely to be up to in Capital City should help readers plan what they might want to be up to politically themselves.
There are significant things still to be done by the 115th Congress. The Senate, for example, will have responsibility for acting on Trump’s nominees for federal judgeships and literally hundreds of key executive slots, including ambassadorships and the number two and three officials in many of the cabinet-level agencies and departments that have yet been filled or need to be re-filled because of presidential petulance.
Another mainstay legislative priority popping up before November is funding the government for Fiscal Year 2019. Most of the hard decisions have already been made. Some others do remain, e.g., the Farm Bill, will need new authorizing legislation. There will also be the inevitable surprises over which members of Congress will want to have some say.
Unaccountable occurrences can include, anything—airstrikes in Syria, escalated trade wars or skirmishes between the U.S. and any other nation in the world with the possible exception of Russia, the resignation of a president—as opposed to the continuing resignation of the nation to the president.
Much of the action over the next two months of legislative days, however, will amount to little more than a stylized pre-election dance. There will be the inevitable dumping of legislative proposals having no chance of being considered by the requisite committee let alone of passage.
EPA Administrator Pruitt’s announcement of the Agency’s intention to rollback the 2022 through 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set by the Obama administration as they were walking out the White House door was hardly surprising. It would be hard to overstate the significance of the rollback in terms of combatting climate change. Although the transportation sector is made up of more than CAFE covered vehicles, it is estimated that the 54.5 mpg standard would cut oil consumption by 12 billion barrels over the lives of covered vehicles and reduce CO2 emissions by six billion tons.
Candidate Trump telegraphed his intention to rollback CAFE and other Obama era environmental regulations throughout his campaign for the presidency. In Pruitt, President Trump has a witting tool to carry out his orders.
Part 1 of CAFE OLÉ offered a brief history of the legislation leading up to the present time and reviewed the records of Pruitt and the President both before and since their arrival in Capital City. Their past will likely prove the prologue to a reductive process that sets the new standard well below the 54.5 mpg established by the Obama. It is also likely that California’s request to set stricter requirements than the EPA will be denied for only the second time since 1972.
Part 2 begins by addressing the California question and why the Administration would be willing to deny the 135 million residents of states following California’s lead the opportunity to breathe fewer automotive fumes than the rest of the nation. The commentary then continues with a discussion of the major stakeholders in the standards-setting debate and suggests ways to move the dialogue into more constructive territory.
California or bust?
The 1970 federal Clean Air Act (CAA) provided a means by which California can secure a waiver from federal fuel efficiency standards permitting it to set its own more strident mpg requirements. California’s efforts to regulate auto emissions date back to 1966 when it became the first in the nation to regulate tailpipe emissions.
It comes as no surprise that EPA Administrator Pruitt recently announced the Agency’s intention to rollback the 2022 through 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for autos and light trucks. Candidate Trump telegraphed his intention to rollback CAFE and other Obama era environmental regulations while campaigning for the presidency.
In EPA Administrator Pruitt, President Trump has a witting tool to carry out his orders.
The Obama administration didn’t need any convincing of Trump’s intention to make good on his campaign promise. Just days before Donald John’s coming to Washington, EPA reaffirmed the 54.5 mpg[i] standard after evaluating the latest data to determine whether it remained technologically and economically feasible for the industry to meet the target. The current standard of 35.5[ii] mpg and the anticipated 2025 standard were originally agreed to in 2012.
The mid-term evaluation was to be completed before April 2018, according to the terms of the 2012 deal between the Obama administration and the auto industry. The 2022-2025 standards are often referred to as Phase 2. Phase 1 standards covered the years 2012 to 2016. By law, standards can be set for periods of no more than five years at a time. Standards for the period ending in 2030 will be the next tranche on the table.
In the eyes of the auto industry, the evaluation was a rush to judgment by the Obama White House to thwart—or at least impede—any effort by Trump’s troupe to make good on his campaign promise. On their own, CAFE standards are a very big deal as the transportation sector has now eclipsed the electric power as the largest source of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the U.S..
The Administration's current intention to rollback the Obama standard appears to be based on no new information. As far as anyone seems to know, the data on which the decision was made is the same used by Administrator McCarthy to reaffirm the 54.5 standard in 2017. Apparently, Pruitt simply took the auto industry’s assertion that the data does not support the higher mpg target.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.