Donald Trump launched an all-out assault on Barack Obama’s climate change legacy on Tuesday with a sweeping executive order that undermines America’s commitment to the Paris agreement.
Watched by coalminers at a ceremony at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, the president signed an order to trigger a review of the clean power plan, Obama’s flagship policy to curb carbon emissions, and rescind a moratorium on the sale of coalmining leases on federal lands.
Trump’s climate blitzkrieg is unlikely to herald the end of civilization, but it risks US geopolitical dominance and could help ‘make China great again’
But the move was swiftly condemned by environmentalists as a “dangerous” and “embarrassing” attempt to turn back the clock that would do little to revive the US coal industry while threatening cooperation with major polluters such as China and India.
In a speech before he signed the order, Trump promised “a new era in American energy and production and job creation”. He said: “The action I’m taking today will eliminate federal overreach, restore economic freedom and allow our workers and companies to thrive and compete on a level playing field for the first time in a long time. I’m not just talking eight years.”
Trump promised the measures would be “bringing back our jobs, bringing back our dreams and making America wealthy again”.
He praised coalminers in the room as “amazing”and “incredible”, recalling that he heard about their struggles over the past two years. “I made them this promise: we will put our miners back to work … Today I’m putting an end to the war on coal.”
Trump also pledged a future of “clean coal”, and dismissed “the so-called clean power plan” as “a crushing attack on American industry”. The executive order also lifts a moratorium on the sale of new coal leases on federal land, removes “job killing restrictions” on energy production, and returns power to state level.
Trump’s acceptance of climate change science has long been in question. In 2014 he tweeted: “Global warming is an expensive hoax!” On Tuesday his press secretary, Sean Spicer, ducked a question over whether he still takes this view. “I think you’ll hear more today about the climate and what he believes,” Spicer said.
“I think he understands – he does not believe that … there is a binary choice been job creation, economic growth, and caring about the environment, and that’s what we should be focusing on. I think at the end of the day, where we should be focusing is making sure that all Americans have clean water, clean air and that we do what we can to preserve and protect our environment.”
The clean power plan – introduced by Obama in 2015 but blocked by the courts last year – was intended to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Spicer said that Tuesday’s order included “a review of the new performance standards for coal-fired and natural gas-fired plants that amount to a de facto ban on new coal plant production in the United States”. He told reporters: “This is great news for states like Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and others.”
All the states listed voted for Trump in last November’s presidential election. The executive order continues his aggressive endeavour to unravel his predecessor’s policies and strip away regulations in what his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called “the deconstruction of the administrative state”. This includes radically diminishing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Spicer said: “For too long the federal government has acted like a barrier to energy independence and innovation.”
He added: “The most voracious and malign special interest in American politics – the fossil fuel industry – has captured the Trump administration, installed its top henchmen at the EPA, and gone to work trying to unwind any environmental and public health safeguard that gets in the way of its profits.”
Obama was dubbed the first “climate president” for acknowledging the real threat of global warming, although critics argued his record was blemished by investments in dirty fuels around the workd. In 2015, the clean power plan was billed as the strongest action ever on climate change by a US president. Under the subsequent Paris accord, the US agreed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26-28% by 2025 compared with 2005 levels.
Trump and his allies, including the EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, have previously criticised the Paris agreement involving nearly 200 countries. A senior administration official said on Monday: “In terms of the Paris agreement, whether we stay in or not is still under discussion.”
Tuesday’s order seeks to suspend, rescind or review more than half a dozen measures in an effort to boost domestic energy production. These include Obama’s 2013 climate action plan, a major fracking regulation, guidelines published by the White House Council on Environmental Quality last August, and estimates of the social costs of carbon and other greenhouses gases.
The 2015 clean power plan has been on hold since 2016 while a federal appeals court considers a challenge by coal-friendly states and more than 100 companies. The attempt to roll it back completely faces a complex process of rewriting rules and fending off legal challenges from states such as California and New York, environmental groups and sections of industry.
“Whatever process was used create it, that process will have to be used to undo it,” said Richard Lazarus, an environmental law expert at Harvard University. “The more they rush in, the more likely they make a mistake.”
Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation. said: “Sending the clean power plan back to the drawing board might earn President Trump a few political points from a narrow interest group, but should this see the light of day, it will hurt the vast majority of Americans as it will propel the economy backwards so that it resembles something from the 19th century.
“The good news is that it will take much more than today’s order to stop domestic climate action in the US – indeed, this document is likely to spend years in court. What’s more, there are countless countries ready to step up and deliver on their climate promises and take advantage of Mr Trump’s short-termism to reap the benefits of the transition to the low-carbon economy.”
Lease applications blocked by the Obama moratorium included more than 1.8bn tons of coal from two dozen mines, the Associated Press reported. Burning that coal would unleash an estimated 3.4bn tons of carbon dioxide – equivalent to a year of emissions from 700m cars, it said.
But coal still faces competition from cheap and abundant natural gas, partly due to advances in drilling such as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. From 2011 to 2016, the coalmining industry lost about 60,000 jobs, leaving just over 77,000 miners, according to preliminary government figures.
Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, said: “No matter what any elected official says, rescinding commonsense climate change regulations and popular public health protections will not revive the coal industry or put thousands of miners back to work.
“Market forces, including consumer preferences and technological advancement, are the primary reason for the surge in cleaner forms of energy. In fact, even without the clean power plan, we are likely to hit its emissions targets ahead of schedule – because consumers, cities and businesses will continue leading on public health and climate change even when Washington won’t.”
But the president’s actions were praised by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank. Nick Loris, a fellow in energy and environmental policy, said: “Wealth equals health. It’s not about being a fossil fuel stooge; it’s about allowing them to be competitive.”