Phantom Peril in the Arctic
Russia Doesn’t Threaten the United States in the Far North—But Climate Change Does
When U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in April at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, one topic was not on the agenda: the environment. Perhaps they couldn’t find enough common ground. Xi, a chemical engineer by training, has often spoken publicly about his concerns over the effects of climate change on China, where almost 20 percent of the land is desert, an area expanding at a rate of more than 1,300 square miles per year. Analysts believe Xi is also determined to help China dominate the clean energy industry. In 2015, China installed more than one wind turbine every hour, on average, and enough solar panels to cover over two dozen soccer fields every day, according to Greenpeace. As part of its drive to clean up dangerous air pollution in Chinese cities, Beijing has canceled the construction of more than 100 coal-fired power plants this year alone. Such measures, coupled with Xi’s commitment to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, have turned Xi into a global leader on energy and the environment, filling a void created by the man who sat across the table from him at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s position on environmental protection has been consistent: he wants far less of it. Unlike Xi, Trump and many of his cabinet secretaries question the scientific consensus that human activities are the main driver of climate change. In the name of regulatory reform and job creation, they want to increase domestic fossil fuel production and roll back limits on both greenhouse gas emissions and the release of conventional pollutants. During his campaign, Trump promised to “get rid of” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “We’re going to have little tidbits left, but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out,” he said in March 2016. And his administration is considering withdrawing from the Paris agreement, a move that would undermine the United States’ standing in the world, cede clean energy jobs and investment to China and Europe, and expose U.S. companies to retaliatory trade measures.
If enacted, Trump’s agenda would erode the environmental and public health safeguards that Republicans and Democrats alike have put in place over the past 50 years. As a result, it would lead to more disease and more premature deaths, weaken the U.S. economy, and yield environmental leadership to China. But it is not too late for the administration to change course.
THE WAR ON ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTIONS
In late March, when Trump appeared at the headquarters of the EPA to sign an executive order unraveling President Barack Obama’s efforts to combat climate change, he declared that his goal was no less than “ending the theft of American prosperity.” “Come on, fellas,” he said, turning to a group of coal miners who were flanking him at the event. “You’re going back to work.”
Reducing red tape and making federal rules more effective are worthy goals. But they require a careful balancing of risks and benefits and a consideration of the views of many stakeholders. The Trump administration has sought the views of just one: the industry affected. All of Trump’s cabinet secretaries who oversee energy and the environment have ties to the fossil fuel industry, and none has a history of advocacy for cleaner air, cleaner water, or public health. The president’s choice to lead the EPA, the Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, rose to prominence by teaming up with fossil fuel producers to sue the agency 14 times. As attorney general, he allowed industry lobbyists to draft some of his letters to the EPA; now he runs the organization. It is the governmental equivalent of a hostile takeover.
The EPA’s annual budget currently stands at about $8.06 billion, close to its lowest level in 40 years. This sum represents just two-tenths of one percent of total federal government spending. Yet Trump and Pruitt want to reduce the agency’s budget by almost one-third, cutting it more than any other agency’s budget. This would severely weaken the EPA’s ability to monitor pollution levels and enforce public health safeguards. It would cripple the Superfund and Brownfields programs, which clean up contaminated sites, and eliminate more than 50 programs, including ones involving research into climate change and the restoration of the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.
Trump’s political team has imposed new restrictions on public communications by EPA staff and, in late April, ordered the agency’s climate science webpage to be taken down; it now redirects to a page that says updates are pending “to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.” The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 calls for thousands of layoffs in the agency, and morale is understandably low. A budget proposal is a trial balloon, designed to set the terms of debate. In the funding bill for the remainder of the current fiscal year, Congress imposed only modest cuts on the EPA, but the big fight, over next year’s budget, is just beginning. If Congress passes anything close to these proposed cuts, it will destroy the EPA as it currently exists.
Yet the coal workers Trump used as props at his EPA photo op are in for a cruel surprise: undermining the EPA and revoking environmental regulations will not bring back many mining jobs. Demand for coal has declined not primarily because of the EPA or the spread of renewable sources of energy but because of huge increases in the supply of cheap natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as demand for coal for electric generation fell by 22 percent from 2011 to 2015, power-sector demand for natural gas rose by 32 percent—dwarfing the increase in power generation from renewable sources, which rose by six percent over the same time period. What’s more, mining has become so mechanized that even increased demand for coal won’t create many more jobs.
Every job matters, but the debate about coal misses a much bigger point. Blaming environmental protection for job losses ignores one of the greatest success stories in recent U.S. history. From 1970, the year President Richard Nixon established the EPA, through 2015, U.S. GDP increased by 246 percent, whereas national emissions of six common air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, a leading cause of acid rain, dropped by an average of 71 percent. The number of U.S. jobs, meanwhile, increased by more than 90 percent.
To be sure, the United States has witnessed a hollowing out of the middle class, and that problem demands a concerted response. But trying to return to the fuel sources of the last century is no solution. Instead, the United States should embrace the clean energy sources of this century, such as wind and solar power. Improvements in battery storage and other innovations have already begun to generate millions of high-paying jobs. More than two million Americans now work in jobs related to energy efficiency, such as retrofitting homes or manufacturing efficient appliances, and the wind and solar power industries employ half a million more. In total, twice as many Americans work in renewable energy fields as do in jobs that involve extracting and generating electricity from fossil fuels. Clean technology has begun to transform labor markets in states that rely on manufacturing. Illinois and Ohio each have more than 100,000 clean energy jobs, according to a study by BW Research Partnership. Minnesota and Missouri each have more than 50,000. And the numbers are rising rapidly in half a dozen other Midwestern states. No wonder a Gallup poll conducted in March found that 72 percent of Americans favor more government support for wind and solar power. And in February, a bipartisan group of governors sent Trump a letter pointing out that the nation’s wind and solar resources are transforming low-income rural areas “in ways not seen since the passage of the Homestead Act over 150 years ago.” One reason: U.S. wind facilities pay rural landowners $245 million in lease fees each year, a figure projected to climb to $900 million a year by 2030.
Undermining the EPA and revoking environmental regulations will not bring back many mining jobs.
As renewables become fully competitive with fossil fuels and as states such as California and New York continue to drive policies that support them, they are sure to play a growing role in the power mix no matter what the president does. Red states such as Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas are installing thousands of wind turbines. Red congressional districts boast more large-scale wind and solar energy production than do blue ones. According to the asset-management firm Lazard, between 2009 and 2016, the price of electricity generated by land-based wind turbines, without any subsidies, plummeted from 14 cents to 4.7 cents per kilowatt-hour—making it cheaper than the energy produced by most new natural gas or coal-fired power plants. Nationwide, the price of electricity generated by utility-scale solar power has dropped by roughly 90 percent over the last decade. Even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, in Benham, in Harlan County—the heart of the U.S. coal industry—is switching to solar power. A spokesperson said that the decision would save the museum money.
DON'T WAIT FOR WASHINGTON
The challenge, of course, is that renewable sources of electricity don’t produce power around the clock. Until grids become smarter and storage technology cheaper, the United States will need to rely on natural gas power plants, which can be fired up when the sun isn’t shining or the wind doesn’t blow. Fortunately, the price of energy storage is falling dramatically. The question is whether government policies will speed or stymie this trend. So it was discouraging when, in April, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who as governor of Texas saw his state become the top producer of wind power in the country, asked his department to prepare a study on whether policies that encourage the use of clean energy, such as production tax credits for wind and solar power and mandates that set goals for utilities to increase the proportion of green energy they provide (known as “renewable portfolio standards”), imperil the security of the grid by forcing coal-fired and nuclear power plants to retire prematurely.
Clean energy advocates fear that the move is part of a broader attempt by the administration to slow the growth of renewables and create new subsidies for coal and nuclear power. But it is troubling that Perry has said that the administration reserves the right to preempt state clean energy policies. Moreover, Perry’s study will focus on clean energy subsidies while ignoring the billions of dollars the United States spends each year on fossil fuel subsidies in the form of tax breaks. Trump, meanwhile, has resumed the sale of coal mined on federal land, reversed an Obama-era restriction on dumping mining waste into waterways, and ended Obama’s mandate that federal agencies must consider climate change in a broad range of decisions.
Although federal action may be in short supply for some time to come, state and local governments and leading corporations are accomplishing a great deal. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, recently announced Project Gigaton, which aims to remove a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions—more than the annual emissions of Germany—from the company’s global supply chain by 2030. Last December, in Illinois, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner signed the Future Energy Jobs Act, which will temporarily subsidize existing nuclear plants in the state, create clean energy jobs, and accelerate the shift from coal to renewable energy sources—delivering a remarkable 56 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the state’s power sector by 2030. (By contrast, Obama’s Clean Power Plan would have reduced emissions in Illinois by 34 percent.) The Future Energy Jobs Act is proof that state action can deliver major breakthroughs. It’s the kind of progress that will be necessary at a time when Washington has abdicated leadership.
Rolling back regulations will take its toll on public health.
Trump has also signaled his intention to lower vehicle fuel-economy standards. In March, Trump ordered the EPA to reopen its recent favorable midterm review of rules that require auto manufacturers to meet fleetwide averages of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Some industry leaders have complained that reaching this goal will be too costly. But in the long run, relaxing these standards will only hurt the U.S. auto industry. The rest of the world’s automakers are electrifying their fleets and boosting gas mileage. China is subsidizing its electric vehicles and creating a massive internal market for them. Loosening fuel-economy standards would encourage Detroit to build more gas-guzzling SUVs and fewer electric vehicles just when global consumer demand is shifting toward cleaner cars. It’s not only environmentalists who recognize this trend: Total, one of the world’s largest oil producers, projects that electric vehicles could account for almost a third of new automobile sales by the end of the next decade.
In addition to setting back the fight against climate change, the administration’s attitude toward environmental regulation will make it harder for the EPA to fulfill its vital role as the country’s public health watchdog. Although the EPA has made progress in fighting dangerous pollution over the past few decades, its work is not complete. A new report by the American Lung Association, for example, found that almost four in ten Americans—about 125 million people—live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution.
Rolling back regulations will take its toll on public health. For example, revoking the Clean Power Plan and thus allowing companies to emit more dangerous air pollutants would cause up to 3,600 more premature deaths, 1,700 more heart attacks, 90,000 more asthma attacks, and 300,000 more missed work and school days each year, according to the EPA’s own analysis. In another worrying sign, lawyers representing the Trump administration recently asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to delay hearing a case on an EPA standard that, in 2011, set the first national limits on the amount of mercury, acid gases, and other toxic pollutants that power plants could emit. Such pollutants are hazardous to human health even in small doses: mercury causes brain damage in children; acid gases cause serious lung diseases; and metal toxics, such as chromium and nickel, cause cancer. Legal analysts have interpreted the request to delay as a sign that the administration intends to revisit and weaken these safeguards.
Pruitt is also trying to overturn rules that require oil and gas companies to monitor and reduce emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide for the first 20 years it exists in the atmosphere. U.S. oil and gas companies emit eight million to ten million metric tons of methane annually—enough natural gas to supply the heating and cooking needs of every home in Ohio for a year. Methane emissions contribute to smog, which triggers asthma attacks and causes other respiratory illnesses. At times, the air quality in some rural areas where oil and gas are produced, such as Pinedale, Wyoming, and Vernal, Utah, has been worse than it is in big cities. Reducing emissions wouldn’t cost much—according to a study by the consultancy ICF International, a 40 percent cut would cost just one cent per thousand cubic feet of gas produced—and rolling back these rules would help only laggards in the industry that haven’t kept up with best practices. And it would also shortchange U.S. taxpayers, since companies pay no royalties on the $330 million worth of natural gas that they leak or vent on public or tribal lands every year. In May, the Senate rejected an attempt to revoke rules controlling methane emissions on federal land; every Democratic and three Republican senators voted to protect these standards. It was the first big win this year for the environmental community, and proof that its voice still counts—but the administration has said that it will look for other ways to undo the safeguards.
Before the EPA proposed rules to control methane, in August 2015, state governments had led the way—and now that the Trump administration is trying to reverse course, the states will have to step up once again. In early 2014, Colorado became the first state to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations. It introduced rules that reduced approximately 65,000 tons of methane and some 90,000 tons of smog-forming compounds each year, equal to the amount produced by all the cars and trucks in Colorado.
Not every state has the political will to follow Colorado’s lead. That’s why action is needed at the federal level. But the Trump administration has shown no interest in sensible oversight, and Pruitt has ignored the views of his own experts. Over the objections of EPA scientists, for example, he recently decided to allow the continued use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which is applied to much of the fresh food that Americans consume. EPA scientists had recommended banning it because it may cause neurological damage in children. Pruitt overruled them. He also plans to cut funding for research into potentially harmful chemicals—some linked to breast cancer and birth defects—found in products most Americans have in their homes, such as flame retardants. And he is seeking to decrease grants to monitor the safety of tap water, paving the way for more disasters like that which occurred in the city of Flint, Michigan, where up to 9,000 children under the age of six were exposed to lead in their tap water. An estimated six million to ten million U.S. homes still receive their drinking water through lead pipes.
STAND UP FOR SCIENCE
If the administration is serious about responsible regulatory reform, it should study the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which passed in the House last year in a bipartisan landslide of 403 to 12 and passed in the Senate by a voice vote. For decades, various legislators had tried in vain to fix its deeply flawed predecessor, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which gave the EPA the authority to regulate chemicals but was so broken that the agency couldn’t even ban cancer-causing asbestos.
The Lautenberg Act succeeded because industry leaders, public health groups, and environmental organizations came together to work out a practical path forward. Supported by Democrats such as Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico and Republicans such as Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the law sets clear and enforceable deadlines for the EPA to evaluate existing chemicals, imposes new safety standards, and improves transparency. The administration should recognize that chemical-safety reform was driven by a bipartisan recognition that both industry and the public need strong, credible, and well-funded federal oversight.
The passage of the Lautenberg Act was a triumph of bipartisan regulatory reform—yet now it is at risk of being undone by congressional efforts to paralyze the EPA’s ability to implement the law. Inspired by calls by Steve Bannon, the White House adviser, for “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” at least six antiregulatory bills have passed the House so far in this Congress. They would hamstring the process for issuing or implementing safeguards, making it nearly impossible in some cases and undoing the hard-won improvements to chemical policy introduced by the Lautenberg Act.
Yet there are some grounds for optimism. The environmental protections now in place were introduced with ample time for comment and judicial review, and they cannot be undone with the stroke of a pen. More than 60 percent of Americans would like to see the EPA’s powers preserved or strengthened, according to a poll that Reuters/Ipsos conducted in January. And in April, a poll by CNBC found that fewer Americans supported—and more opposed—Trump’s plan to roll back climate protections than supported any other part of his policy agenda. Americans everywhere care deeply about the health of their children, about clean air and water, and about safe communities and safe food—and the process of regulatory unraveling will give them plenty of opportunities to prove it.
In April, hundreds of thousands of Americans protested in marches held around the country in support of action on climate change and serious, unbiased science. By rejecting the administration’s assumption that it can eliminate hard-won environmental safeguards without consequence, they can help turn back the worst of the administration’s environmental agenda. Their voices were critical, for example, in persuading the Senate to reject the administration’s attempt to revoke commonsense rules to control methane emissions on federal land. That was one vote; there will be many more, and common sense will surely not prevail every time. But if enough people stand up and make their voices heard, the president himself may even decide to steer a new course.