A year after Trump’s energy order, rollbacks inch forward

By Ellen M. Gilmer | 03/28/2018 07:43 AM EDT

A year ago today, President Trump delivered a crushing blow to his predecessor’s environmental legacy, signing an “energy independence” executive order aimed at boosting domestic fossil fuels. The order set off a cascade of deregulatory actions, but most remain snarled in litigation today.

A year ago today, President Trump signed an executive order to boost domestic fossil fuels.

A year ago today, President Trump signed an executive order to boost domestic fossil fuels. Interior Department

Suspense built for weeks in the lead-up to President Trump’s "energy independence" executive order last year.

Would it single out the Obama administration’s landmark climate regulation? Would it cast a broader net, entangling other environmental rules and initiatives carefully crafted over the previous eight years? Would it get delayed, yet again?

A year ago today, the president appeared onstage in U.S. EPA headquarters in Washington and answered those questions with a crushing blow to his predecessor’s environmental legacy. Flanked by coal miners and Cabinet officials ready to flex their deregulatory muscle, Trump signed the "energy independence" order aimed at boosting domestic fossil fuels by lifting regulatory burdens on the coal and oil and gas industries.


The order was sweeping, setting the stage for a push toward "energy dominance" the administration has since prioritized. The decree targeted the Obama administration’s embattled Clean Power Plan, along with a slew of safety and environmental regulations for oil and gas production and coal leasing.

During its unveiling, Trump hailed the order as the start of "a new era of energy" that would "really lead to unbelievable prosperity all throughout our country" (Climatewire, March 29, 2017).

Many Democrats and environmentalists, meanwhile, saw doom. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called the order a "declaration of war" against clean energy and climate science, and others readied for battle in the courts and agencies.

Indeed, the executive order set off a cascade of deregulatory actions. But most of those remain snarled in litigation today.

Here’s where the key rollbacks stand.

Clean Power Plan

The most high-profile piece of Trump’s executive order was its decree that EPA rethink the Clean Power Plan. The regulation was the Obama administration’s marquee effort to address greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector.

The rule has been stayed by a Supreme Court order since 2016, and the agency last fall unveiled a proposal to fully rescind it. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt hasn’t yet committed to replacing the Clean Power Plan with a narrower regulation, but many expect the agency to eventually take that approach.

Since October, EPA has fielded comments from stakeholders on all sides of the debate and just wrapped up a series of listening sessions across the country (Climatewire, March 27).

Litigation over the Clean Power Plan is on pause. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard arguments in 2016 but agreed to put the case on hold while Trump officials work on the rollback. When EPA finalizes its rescission, new litigation is expected to follow.

One less controversial climate rule from the Obama administration — carbon emissions standards for new and modified power plants — remains in effect, with litigation on hold. The regulation has limited reach, however, as industry has shown little interest in building new plants. EPA told the D.C. Circuit in January that it is still reviewing the rule.

Fracking rule

The "energy independence" order also sought to roll back regulations seen as burdensome to energy production on public lands. One target: Obama-era standards for hydraulic fracturing on public and tribal lands.

The fracking rule had been on a litigation roller coaster since its unveiling in 2015. A federal district court sidelined the rule two years ago, but the previous administration was pushing back against that decision in an appeal.

The Trump administration shifted gears last spring and fully rescinded the regulation in December. BLM argued that while the agency has authority to regulate fracking, it need not do so because states have the production technique covered.

California and a coalition of environmentalists quickly sued over the rollback, and the case is moving forward slowly in a federal district court in California (Energywire, Jan. 25).

Industry groups and the state of Wyoming have moved to defend the rescission of the rule. BLM and its allies are pushing to move the case to Wyoming, seen as a friendlier venue.

EPA methane standards

The Trump administration has had a tougher time unwinding standards for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

U.S. EPA’s attempt to roll back Obama-era requirements for new and modified oil and gas sites last year was reversed by the D.C. Circuit last summer.

Since then, the agency has floated a proposal for a two-year freeze but hasn’t yet finalized it. Other than technical tweaks announced earlier this month, the Obama standards are fully in force.

BLM methane rule

Trump officials tried several times last year to kill the Obama administration’s standards to cut natural gas waste on public and tribal lands. After a few failed attempts, BLM announced plans for a detailed rewrite that would scrap core pieces of the regulation.

BLM’s revisions, revealed earlier this year, would effectively roll back elements of the rule the agency had previously proposed to delay. BLM justified the proposal with a cost-benefit analysis touting net benefits rooted in reduced compliance costs for oil and gas companies. The calculations severely discounted the social cost of emitting more methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Earlier efforts to sideline the standards have been messy. An attempt to nullify the methane rule via the Congressional Review Act narrowly failed last spring. And federal judges have since knocked down two agency efforts to pause the requirements or delay compliance deadlines.

Today, the Obama rule is in full force, but oil and gas industry lawyers are working feverishly to persuade another court to neutralize it. Industry groups say many companies aren’t prepared to comply and shouldn’t be forced to do so in light of the administration’s latest effort to scale back the standards (Energywire, March 1).

Oil and gas rules for other public lands

Aside from the BLM fracking and methane standards, Trump’s executive order explicitly targeted two other Interior oil and gas rules.

The department has yet to propose changes to the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service regulations that govern non-federal oil and gas rights beneath land overseen by those agencies.

Interior may even skip revisions to the NPS rule, which wasn’t mentioned in a review of departmentwide actions that could stifle domestic energy development (Energywire, Nov. 3, 2017).

FWS is still examining its requirements for oil and gas extraction in wildlife refuges, according to the review, which was published last fall.

Coal leasing

Trump’s order also called for an immediate end to the Obama administration’s moratorium on new federal coal leasing. Obama officials temporarily halted leasing to conduct a high-level review of programs in light of market changes and climate change.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke promptly reversed his predecessor’s plan by scrapping the review and calling for a leasing restart. So far, though, that decision hasn’t yielded major results. Interior approved leases for about 40 million tons of coal under Trump last year. At the same time, coal companies have withdrawn applications for 901 million tons (E&E News PM, Jan. 29).

Meanwhile, the agency is facing continued scrutiny for its analysis of leasing’s impacts. With the Obama administration’s plans for a refreshed programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) scuttled, environmentalists are calling on federal courts to intervene.

Last week, the D.C. Circuit appeared receptive to groups’ arguments that Interior needs to revisit the existing environmental analysis, which was drafted in 1979. A separate case is working its way through a federal district court in Montana (Energywire, March 26).

Reporters Pamela King and Dylan Brown contributed.

See below for an annotated version of the executive order, or click here for a PDF version.