White House

E&E News reporters talk next steps for power plan, EPA and Keystone XL

This week, the Trump administration rolled out its highly anticipated executive action on climate and energy that largely seeks to reverse the Obama climate legacy. In an E&E News special report, reporters Emily Holden, Evan Lehmann, Hannah Hess and Ellen Gilmer discuss the details of this week's executive order and outline what's next for litigation, regulation and the politics of climate change.


Monica Trauzzi: Thank you for joining us from the E&E newsroom in Washington, D.C. I'm Monica Trauzzi.

This week the Trump administration rolled out its highly anticipated executive action on climate and energy. This action largely seeks to roll back the Obama administration's climate legacy.

With me to unpack it all and talk about what's coming next are E&E News reporters Emily Holden, Evan Lehmann, Hannah Hess and Ellen Gilmer. Thank you guys so much for joining me. Busy news week, yeah?

Hannah Hess: Mm-hmm.

Monica Trauzzi: So let's talk a bit about you've all reported on different aspects of the story from political to legal to regulatory. What are your key takeaways from your reporting this week, Emily?

Emily Holden: Well, I thought the most important thing to keep in mind while President Trump got on stage with EPA and surrounded himself with coal miners and said, "This is what we're going to do to bring back the coal industry," is that that is still incredibly difficult, and some of the analysis has shown that even without the Clean Power Plan you could see just a really moderate rebound of coal mining in the West, but you're not going to be bringing back jobs in Appalachia in the way that he's tried to promise.

Evan Lehmann: So that's reality. In politics I think it was a big win. He was able to reorient his narrative after the devastating loss of health care last year or last week rather and talk about something that he is really accelerated on throughout the campaign and so forth and surrounded himself with coal miners and said, "You are going to be coming back to work."

Now the countdown begins on that promise now. We'll see if he can actually put 35,000 miners back to work that have lost their jobs over the past six years or so.

Hannah Hess: I think Tuesday was like the release of a pressure valve almost for the energy environment community. Of course we've been waiting for this order for weeks, and now that it's finally here, it landed and Republicans on Capitol Hill were able to sound aligned and together and very supportive of the president. So it's been interesting this week to watch the discussion about what comes next.

Ellen Gilmer: I think one important takeaway is just that as crazy as this week was, most of the impacts haven't even yet begun. The order, while it did some things that take place immediately like revoke guidances, largely it directs agencies to do things so we're still going to be seeing that process play out and we're going to be seeing all of the fallout on all sides there.

Monica Trauzzi: What are the potential avenues for litigation stemming from the executive order?

Ellen Gilmer: So in the immediate term we're not going to see a lot of people challenging the order itself. The closest we have are environmental groups and the tribes who have challenged the lifting of the coal leasing moratorium, which is interesting. In that case they're challenging in a lawsuit not the executive order itself, but the Interior Department's action complying with the executive order.

Other than that we won't see a lot of direct executive order lawsuits. We'll see lawsuits that are related to whatever the agencies ultimately decide on regulatory rollbacks and things like that, and we'll see a lot of scrambling in the existing litigation. In the Clean Power Plan, for example, hydraulic fracturing rule, methane.

Monica Trauzzi: Hannah, what's it been like on the Hill this week? What's the reaction?

Hannah Hess: For the most part, pretty predictable. Republicans, especially those from Western states and coal regions, were very excited for this. A couple of them joined Trump at EPA for the signing and then Democrats immediately came out with legislation in both chambers that would repeal this executive order — rescind.

Monica Trauzzi: Is there an opening here for Congress to act? We always hear that climate change should be handled through legislative action. We've heard talk about a carbon tax. Is there an opening here, or are they just letting the executive branch handle it?

Hannah Hess: Well, interestingly enough there were some small cracks in the GOP response. A couple of the more moderate Republicans who are acknowledging that climate science is real and that climate change is a threat were critical of the order and critical specifically of the effects that it would have on greenhouse gas emissions.

Chris Van Hollen in the Senate announced that he was working on some carbon pricing legislation.

Then also Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat, said he's working on bringing back some carbon pricing legislation. When I spoke to him this week he said last Congress it was really more about messaging and this time he's really trying to refine the legislation so that it's more politically feasible and he's really hoping for some bipartisan support. We'll see if that happens.

Monica Trauzzi: Emily, are they going to propose a replacement for the Clean Power Plan?

Emily Holden: So there was some talk early on while we were waiting for this order to come out that the smart legal move would be to replace the Clean Power Plan with something a lot weaker because then essentially you wouldn't have to fight over whether EPA was required to issue something.

I think based on Evan's reporting out of the White House it seems like the message to EPA is just get rid of the rule, and that'll take a really long time. So it's possible that we won't know for a while. It's also possible that it'll just drag out so long that it won't necessarily matter whether there's a replacement or it's being rescinded because the rulemaking process could just take so long it could stretch through this entire administration.

Monica Trauzzi: Evan, politically how are climate and energy issues playing for the president overall?

Evan Lehmann: Well, I think he's making it work for him right now. He was elected in states that tend to have energy, tend to have manufacturing jobs, tend to be concerned about electricity prices. So his narrative now is in line with all of those things. He's satisfying those promises that he made, but again, I think he's going to have to do more than just say it. He's going to have to show it, too. That's going to come over the next several years.

If the economic atmosphere in West Virginia and elsewhere doesn't change, well then, he could just become another politician in D.C.

Monica Trauzzi: Emily, the order rolls back the use of the social cost of carbon consideration in rulemaking. How significant is that and if we don't see many regulations coming out of this EPA, is it really a big hit?

Emily Holden: Right. Well that's exactly what I was going to say. So the social cost of carbon essentially is putting a dollar value on carbon emissions and so it's kind of your first test to say is this something that is enough of a benefit to society that we should regulate it.

I don't think that you're going to be seeing a lot of regulations coming out of the Trump administration. So I don't know if that's something they would even need to consider because they aren't going to make that first move to regulate it like any sector.

Monica Trauzzi: So what's next for the coal industry? We have some pretty significant market dynamics at play. Obviously natural gas and renewables are doing quite well in the market. How much of a boost does this move actually give coal?

Evan Lehmann: Emily might be better suited to answer this, but I don't think it does anything. The Clean Power Plan wasn't actually in place. It was stayed by the Supreme Court.

There weren't actually regulations affecting utilities on the ground, but that said, utilities don't operate in this immediate win atmosphere that politics does. These utilities are planning far out into the future, and I'm pretty sure Emily's going to be reporting out next week around something like utilities still are planning for carbon legislation or carbon regulation going forward.

Emily Holden: Right. That's something they always did even before the Clean Power Plan had a name. They knew that there was some sort of restriction on carbon coming and so they made decisions based on that or they at least kept the options open so that as they move forward they would be in a good position. Some utilities have done that better than others and that depends on where they are in the country and what they started out with and prices and that sort of thing.

But I think ultimately the only thing that could really help coal at this point is if we saw some very unexpected huge increase in natural gas prices.

Monica Trauzzi: So Ellen, Keystone XL is very much back in the news. It's the story that keeps on giving. So the president has moved to approve the pipeline, but now, of course, we're seeing some legal action already. Walk us through what we've seen this week.

Ellen Gilmer: So far we have two lawsuits from environmental groups and tribal groups who are challenging. Well, the Trump administration in approving the pipeline relied on an environmental impact statement that was conducted during the Obama administration and it was completed in early 2014.

So the groups are saying that it was flawed in the first place and they say that it's especially flawed to rely on it now three years later because a lot of market conditions have changed, the need for the pipeline isn't, according to them, as clear as it might have been at the time. So those lawsuits are in District Court in Montana. Those will move forward.

We'll also see a lot of action on the ground in Nebraska where state officials still have to consider whether to approve state permits for the pipeline.

So you'll see a lot of activists working to influence that decision. We could very well see litigation in Nebraska once that decision is made.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Thank you guys for joining me. I think there's a lot of news here that'll keep us busy for quite a long time and thank you for watching.

[End of Audio]



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