The sudden resignation of Scott Pruitt from the Environmental Protection Agency, following months of ethics investigations and allegations of misbehavior, has prompted a flurry of speculation about where his successor might lead the agency.
The new acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, while not promising any significant shift in policies, is likely to bring differences in tone and tactics. Those changes, in turn, may hint at a modest but significant shift that appears to be already under way within the agency and the Trump administration: a less confrontational stance on climate science.
“Over time the fervent deniers [of human-influenced climate change] are being pushed out” of the administration, says David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank promoting an open and free society. The shift, he says, is a subtle one. But, “maybe they are admitting that, at least as a legal matter, this is now established.”
That change is unlikely to derail the focus on rolling back regulations, a core tenet of the Trump administration. No one expects Mr. Wheeler to change course on unraveling Obama-era emissions restrictions for power and transportation. But abandoning the overt attacks on climate science could eventually pave the way for more constructive conversation about policy to address the threats of climate change.
A key priority for the agency since President Trump took office has been dismantling the Clean Power Plan, Barack Obama’s signature mechanism for reducing emissions, under the aegis of the Clean Air Act. But there was significant debate over whether the EPA would seek to scrap the rule completely, or replace it with something weaker.
Ultimately, those advocating for the latter won, and on Monday, the agency sent its proposed replacement to the White House for a review. The plan hasn’t been made public yet, though it reportedly shifts the targets from overall emissions reductions to a focus on making individual coal-fired plants more energy-efficient.
One reason for offering a replacement: Some in the agency were concerned that not doing so could lead to lawsuits against the EPA for failing to regulate greenhouse gases, which in 2009 were determined to pose a threat to human health. While many conservatives, including Mr. Wheeler, disagree with that “endangerment finding,” fighting it in court – where it has already been unsuccessfully challenged – would likely be a losing battle.
“To folks in industry, we see [replacing the CPP] with a realistic approach as more sustainable,” says Frank Maisano, a partner at Bracewell’s Policy Resolution Group, which does lobbying for energy industry clients. “You’re going to put in place something that hopefully will last longer.”
A bargaining chip?
Even many climate activists think the CPP was an imperfect solution – a way to use existing legislation in a somewhat clunky way, given the failure of Congress to craft a bill that more directly targets climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
And its targets – a 32 percent cut in America’s carbon emissions from the power sector by 2030 – were fairly weak, with many states already on track to exceed them simply due to the rise of renewable energy and the market forces that have caused many coal plants to close.
One use for the CPP in the future, in fact, may be more as a bargaining chip that could be used to push Congress to enact climate legislation, says Noah Kaufman, an economist and research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Any weakened standards will likely have no real effect on emissions reductions, he says, but keeping the rule “matters from a legal perspective because any future administration may want to use the same tool” as a way to prod Congress toward meaningful action.
Meanwhile, some observers say that if, in fact, the replacement rule moves to a plant-by-plant determination, as has been reported, in the long run it could be worse for industry.