Climate Clash: President Trump’s First Moves on the Environment

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

It did not take long for President Donald Trump to make his first moves on the environment.

Inaugurated just over a week ago, the 45th President of the United States has acted quickly, issuing a number of executive orders and instructions, geared toward undoing President Obama’s environmental legacy.

The Trump administration’s priorities were made clear on his very first day. Within minutes of the inauguration, White House webpages on climate change and the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan were wiped off and replaced with a page titled, “An America First Energy Plan.” While the page emphasizes a need to align energy policy with “responsible stewardship of the environment,” the plan takes aim at “burdensome regulations”, citing President Trump’s commitment to “[eliminate] harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.”

Hours later, the Trump administration sent an e-mail to employees of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), requesting that “all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately,” a move which could seriously affect climate research and environmental justice projects, among other efforts. The instructions also included a media blackout at the EPA, banning any press releases and online posts to blogs and social media accounts.

The following Monday, January 23rd, President Trump issued an executive order instating a hiring freeze for federal agencies, making exceptions only for the military and other agencies concerned with security and public safety. The freeze affects the EPA and other departments and agencies dealing with environmental matters such as the Department of the Interior (including the Bureau of Land Management) and the Department of Agriculture.

On Tuesday, January 24th, President Trump revived both the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Both were rejected by the Obama administration during the last two years. Mr. Trump cited the importance of bringing jobs to the United States, although the job numbers cited by President Trump are inflated and the oil the pipelines would transport is amongst the dirtiest on the planet. Former President Obama rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2015 after several years of environmental reviews, citing dependence on carbon energy and the need to address climate change. The Army Corps of Engineers only recently chose not to grant an easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline following furious opposition from local tribes, environmentalists, veterans and farmers. Mr. Trump discussed no such concerns or controversies when issuing the orders. The move was accompanied by an executive order to hasten environmental reviews of large infrastructure projects.

The next day, Wednesday, January 25th, the Trump administration demanded that the EPA and the State Department remove any webpages regarding climate change, though administration officials have since suspended the action. Additionally, Doug Ericksen, the head of communications for the Trump administration’s EPA transition team, said in an interview with NPR that scientific studies and data due for public release may have to be vetted first by political staff. While Ericksen did not specify the details of what this would entail, such a move could suppress certain scientific findings or conclusions from going public and have long-term impacts on the agency’s research capabilities. This risk of political overreach into science serving the public interest has long been recognized in other countries such as Canada, where public employees are contractually protected from the censorship and restraint that the Trump Administration is now imposing.

And most recently, today on January 30th, President Trump issued an executive order stating that for every new regulation implemented through federal agencies, two must be cut, which could potentially entail long-standing environmental regulations safeguarding our water, air and public health.

These moves should not only concern environmentalists, but everyone. Communities around the country stand to suffer from the administration’s actions, especially those of low-income and large minority demographics. More broadly, the suspension of EPA grants seriously hinders, and may outright halt, the agency’s work on environmental justice issues. The administration’s resuscitation of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines is a case in point. It disproportionately impacts the cultural identify and health of several native American tribes, whose sacred grounds would be destroyed and water supply be put at risk of contamination.

Academics and scientists should also be worried. The gag order on the EPA validates some of the serious concerns of climate scientists before and after the election. For instance, it was reported back in December that climate scientists were in a mad dash to download climate data off of public servers, fearing that it may disappear upon Mr. Trump’s arrival to the White House. More broadly, research in climate and environmental science could face serious setbacks in transparency, accessibility and financial support. Concern is growing that federal funding for science and technology, (e.g., grants awarded by the National Science Foundation) could be on the chopping block when both the Trump administration and Congress revisit the federal budget in a few weeks. Considering the Trump administration’s ambitious desire to cut government spending by $10.5 billion over the next decade, that possibility is not off the table.

What is unclear is exactly how these actions will play out within the existing legal and statutory framework. Executive orders do have weight, but like legislation, they are subject to court review for their constitutionality. Public backlash through protest and litigation may also convince Congress to carefully review the actions of the Trump administration.

Needless to say, the first week and a half has been a series of repeated punches to the gut of America’s environmental conscience. And as the Trump administration turns away from climate and the environment, we are left to wonder what will come next.