Smoke fills the sky above the First Energy Bruce Mansfield Plant in Shippingport, Penn. (Darrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

How Scott Pruitt’s EPA Is Erasing Obama’s Climate Change Legacy

October 11, 2017
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by Chris Amico
Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

This week, Scott Pruitt, the man at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency, signed a proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a move that would free coal-fired and natural-gas power plants from having to make dramatic reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions.

“Here is the president’s message,” Pruitt said from Hazard, Kentucky, where he announced the proposal. “The war on coal is over.”

The move to undo former president Barack Obama’s signature domestic climate change initiative is one of the most ambitious efforts to rollback environmental regulation in a generation — and the fulfillment of a longtime goal of Pruitt’s. He and his supporters have argued that the Obama administration exceeded its executive authority in crafting the Clean Power Plan. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the agency he now leads 14 times, including four lawsuits aimed at the Clean Power Plan.

The repeal reflects what’s been a broader goal for President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to undo regulations that he has criticized as costly for American business. Trump has made undoing Obama’s environmental legacy a central piece of his agenda, with the rollback of the Clean Power Plan just the latest example. In June, Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, and to date, his EPA has moved to delay or roll back more than two dozen environmental regulations.

Pruitt’s EPA has made strides to kill or delay rules that set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, motor vehicles and landfills across the country — many of these actions were celebrated and backed by leaders in the oil and gas industries and automakers.

Nearly every climate change regulation is vulnerable, said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Law at Columbia University, who has been tracking the administration’s efforts to roll back environmental protections.

“They can all be revised, potentially,” Burger said, noting that most rules set in one administration can be revised by the next.

So far, the EPA’s actions on climate change have targeted federal rules in six broad areas. Here, we examine how the landscape is changing.

For now, many of these rules remain in limbo. In some cases, courts will have the ultimate say on whether the EPA can nix a given regulation. In recent months, courts have ruled against efforts to roll back Obama-era environmental rules at least three times.

Still, experts say the Trump administration’s policies are already damaging efforts to slow greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the Paris climate accord, the U.S. would have reduced its emissions between 26 and 29 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. If those rules are reversed, emissions are likely to stabilize around 14 percent below 2005 levels, according to the New York-based research firm, the Rhodium Group.

Joe Mendelson, who authored a petition in 1999 that helped establish the EPA’s legal framework for regulating greenhouse gases, said that even if the Trump administration can’t roll back everything that was done under Obama, they can cause delays that would be disastrous for the environment.

“The problem is worse and accelerating,” said Mendelson, now a senior counsel at Tesla. “Time is not our friend.”

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