GOP divisions on pact go public as decision nears

By Jean Chemnick | 04/26/2017 07:46 AM EDT

Partisans on both sides of the question about whether to exit the Paris climate deal made a final push over the last two days before administration principals meet at the White House tomorrow.

Partisans on both sides of the question about whether to exit the Paris climate deal made a final push over the last two days before administration principals meet at the White House tomorrow.

Conservative groups, GOP congressmen, business leaders and liberal attorneys general are all making their views known in hopes of influencing the cadre of administration officials who tomorrow may narrow the field of options for President Trump.

There has been speculation that the meeting — which was postponed from last week after becoming widely publicized — was canceled because it highlights a significant area of discord within the administration. Top Cabinet members and White House staff differ on whether it would be wise for the president to make good on his campaign promise to "cancel" U.S. participation in Paris.


But Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who served on Trump’s transition and is now cautiously urging him to consider remaining in the deal, said debate of this kind is how the president "processes."

"I think it’s great that the president allows people close to him to express their very strong opinions, even while they’re different," he said. "To the swamp it appears chaotic, because it’s so out of the ordinary, but I think as people watch it they’re going to find it to be quite refreshing."

Cramer will release a letter today with about eight GOP House colleagues urging Trump to reverse course on Paris, but only if he swaps the Obama-era emissions reduction commitment for a weaker one and takes other steps to shore up domestic industries.

He spearheaded a panel yesterday in a House office building where conservatives and industry advocates sparred over remaining in the deal, which nearly 200 countries agreed to in 2015 outside the French capital.

Most members of the panel argued that sticking with the agreement could yield practical and diplomatic dividends for the new administration on issues unrelated to climate change.

The underlying U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change includes almost the entire world, they noted, while the Paris deal has gained more than 140 parties in less than two years. The framework and agreement have become world energy forums, and participation gives the United States a platform for advancing domestic energy interests, including for coal.

"One cannot belittle the importance of being at the table," said Jeff Merrifield, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioner. "I think it’s very important for the president of the United States and folks that are representing him to be there to defend our interests. If we don’t do that, if we simply withdraw from the accord, we’re ceding the field to Russia, to China and to the folks in Europe."

Cramer and others have said the United States should only remain a party if the Trump administration scraps his predecessor’s commitment to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 — a level they say would impede growth.

But Christopher Horner, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the panel’s sole proponent of withdrawing from Paris, argued that the agreement’s language bars countries from revising their commitments to be less ambitious. If the United States stays in the deal but diminishes its commitment, it will experience nearly as much blowback internationally as if it left, and criticism would resurface every five years when countries are asked to issue new commitments, he said.

"Keep your promise, President Trump," Horner said.

The agreement does not include a legally binding obstacle to a country’s revising down its commitments.

Cramer compared Paris to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has moved to renegotiate. But he added that exiting the climate deal would be even easier because it’s "brand new" and "not accepted" by the Senate.

Horner, bolstered by fellow CEI fellows Myron Ebell and Marlo Lewis in the audience, argued that continued adherence to Paris would hamstring the new administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era standards by handing environmental litigants added ammunition when they sue to preserve, for example, U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

"And you don’t believe that staying in Paris puts the U.S. stamp on affirming that there is this terrible peril from carbon dioxide?" he asked.

But Scott Segal of Bracewell LLP said referencing U.S. obligations to Paris in the past did not help the Obama administration convince the Supreme Court not to stay the power plant rule, and he predicted future litigants would meet the same answer if they tried to use it as an argument.

"We have no trouble dismantling the Clean Power Plan and reforming the Clean Air Act just because we stay in Paris. In fact, Paris can give us additional credibility," said Segal.

Scrapping Obama-era rules, he said, would give the Trump team better leverage in Paris. Segal argued that those cautious of international controls on emissions should have more faith in the current occupant of the White House.

"A Trump-appointed negotiating team that decamps to address the problems of the Paris accord would generate a much different-looking document," he said. "I think we can get a better deal out of it if we allow this administration to do what this administration does."

The battle lines are also drawn within the administration, where some officials, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have voiced support for staying in, while others, like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, have argued against it. But the balance within the administration seems weighted to the pro-Paris camp, while industry advocates are also lining up on both sides of the question.

Companies including BP PLC, DuPont, Google and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. signed a letter today urging Trump to stay in the Paris Agreement. It was organized by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. But the Industrial Energy Consumers of America, which represents large manufacturers, argued in a letter of its own Monday that carbon restrictions of any kind would disadvantage its members.

And a group of Democratic state attorneys general argued in a letter that dismantling Paris would kill a high point of U.S. multilateral leadership.

"The United States showed exemplary leadership in the years-long effort to secure the Paris Agreement, and our nation should continue to lead by fulfilling its promise to abide by and implement this historic accord," they wrote.