Environmental Regulation In Republican Administrations: The Trickster, The Gipper and The Trumpster (Part 2)

August 8, 2017

It is time to build on what we have learned, and to begin a more ambitious national effort. I recommend that the Clean Air Act be revised to expand the scope of strict pollution abatement, to simplify the task of industry in pollution abatement through more nearly uniform standards, and to provide special controls against particularly dangerous pollutants.

                                                                                                  —-Richard Nixon, 1970

Part 1 reviewed the environmental records of Nixon, Ford and Reagan. President Carter’s tenure in office was briefly discussed for purposes of context.

Today’s part looks at Bush 41 and 42. It, as well, addresses the action’s Trump has taken in his first six months in office.

The Trumpster’s place at the bottom of the list of Green Presidents is pretty much assured should he do nothing more than he already has. It is hard to imagine he will see a light anything like Saul saw on his fateful way to Damascus. Although, the world will undoubtedly continue to hope.

History shows that opposition to protecting the environment is not an inherently Republican trait. Nixon, for example, must be counted among those chief executives of the nation, who saw the need to regulate harmful emissions and were willing to act on it. It also tells us the importance of bi-partisanship.

​Do these same lessons come through in today’s discussion?  Read on to find out.

Bush 41

Memos from the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations cast a bit better light on The Gipper’s time in office and offer insight into why George H.W. Bush’s environmental record stands strong. The documents portray senior officials in the two Republican administrations pressing for an aggressive response to international environmental issues of the day — including, during Bush’s term, climate change.

From a State Department memo dated February 15, 1989:

Environmental issues have risen to the top of the international agenda over the last few years…Underlying these political developments is growing awareness that the combination of rapidly growing human populations and their quest for economic development is for the first time threatening to cause irreversible destruction of natural resources and unprecedented changes in the global climate itself.

The rest of the world still looks to the U.S. for leadership in addressing these areas…During the last [Reagan] Administration we exercised that leadership in several areas…most notably…in bringing into force the Montreal Protocol…Overall, however, the U.S. has been perceived…during the Reagan years as unwilling to take the domestic steps necessary to exercise leadership in the international arena…. (emphasis mine)

 The situation presents the Bush [41] Administration with a great opportunity and a great challenge…The opportunity…to strengthen U.S. influence…to reduce pollution, conserve natural resources and minimize the adverse impacts of climate change….

The memo went on to identify six areas of domestic and, in turn, international action and made a series of recommendations. The six areas were: acid rain; hazardous wastes; protection of the ozone layer; tropical deforestation; the marine environment; and, global climate change.

This document and others are also telling in their parallels to the Nixon environmental agenda and legacy. During the four years of Bush 41, accomplishments included:

Two additional things are of note. First, President G. H. W. Bush appointed very competent, knowledgeable individuals understanding of the threat of climate change and the need for collaborative solutions. Among his senior staff was James A. Baker III, who succeeded George Shultz as Secretary of State and served as the Chief of Staff to both Presidents Reagan and G. H. W. Bush.

Today, both these stalwarts remain involved in the environmental movement as members of the conservative Climate Leadership Council. The Council has recently made attempts to discuss with the Trump administration support for a national carbon tax as an alternative to the CPP.

Second, President G. H. W. Bush’s ability to work and to produce significant results in consort with the Democratic Congressional majorities is a testament to an era of bi-partisanship in Washington that seems to have been left behind by the 21st Century.

The Virtues of the Father Were Not…Bush 42

Unfortunately for the environment and clean energy, the virtues of the father were not passed onto the son. Enter George W. Bush.

Trump is not the first president of the 21st Century to exhibit hostility towards environmental regulation and renewable energy. The first full frontal assault on federal policies, programs and regulations occurred during the two terms of Bush 42.

Led by Vice President Cheney, a one-time chairman of the board and CEO of Haliburton, appointees within the White House and federal agencies worked actively to: distort the findings of federal climate scientists; dismiss the threat of climate change; and derail or diminish the work of the Department of Energy, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition, W endeavored to: gut key sections of the Clean Water and Air acts; cripple the Superfund program; cut EPA’s enforcement division by nearly one-fifth; and refrain from fining environmental violators.

An investigation by Rolling Stone, corroborated by numerous other organizations and investigators, revealed:

 …those distortions were sanctioned at the highest levels of our government, in a policy formulated by the vice president, implemented by the White House Council on Environmental Quality……administration scientists and climate-policy officials – confirm[s] that the White House has implemented an industry-formulated disinformation campaign designed to actively mislead the American public on global warming and to forestall limits on climate polluters.

Although many Bush administrative actions were overturned by the courts, the tag team of Cheney and Rove succeeded in slowing the momentum building towards the end of the Clinton/Gore administration that was started by Bush 41.

Market reality is such that fossil fuel interests know time is not on their side. Realistically, then, success for anti-regulating deniers is not repeal–but delay.

In so far as legal challenges to the Administration’s promised environmental deregulation will tie things up in the court for years, they succeed. They also succeed by:

  • Slowing the introduction and/or consideration of new legislation;
  • Cutting budgets and enforcement personnel; and,
  • Threatening the existence of an agency or department and deflect the focus and resources of the clean energy/environment communities away from constructive actions.

Although not known at the time, Bush 42 was to offer a glimpse of what the future was to hold under a Trump administration. The differences between then and now suggest only that the Trumpeters will be more adamant and accomplished in their performance

The Trumpster

Trump’s victory came as a surprise to all—including His-Self, no matter what he says. The fossil fuel and other industries, e.g. auto, resistant to environmental regulation have been given an unexpected opportunity to slow the considerable momentum built up during the last years of the Obama administration.

Seeing this as one of the last chances to control the clock, it is unfathomable to imagine these interests will not seek to out-perform W in their efforts to delay the transition to a low-carbon and resilient economy, perhaps by decades.

Many of Trump’s un-accomplishments over the course of his first six months in office are those directed at clean energy and the environment. By nominating known deniers, many of whom have ties to the fossil fuel industry and are opposed to the agencies they are being asked to lead, the President-elect has guaranteed consequential revisions of U.S. environmental regulation going back decades.

The Trumpster, with a little help from his friends, is off to a flying start. Even before The Donald was sworn in, Congress was sharpening its pencils and scissors. New legislation—more accurately updates of previous legislation like the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act of 2017 (REINS, H.R.26) were being dumped into the hopper.

The Regulatory Accountability Act (H.R. 5) combines six previously passed bills to eliminate what bill sponsors call overly burdensome red tape and regulation. Major provisions of the legislation include:

  • Title I which requires agencies to choose the lowest-cost rulemaking alternative that meets statutory objectives and requires greater opportunity for public input and vetting of critical information.
  • Title II which repeals the Chevron and Auer doctrines to end judicial deference to bureaucrats’ statutory and regulatory interpretations. (GovTrack)

Both bills passed the House mere days after they were introduced and now await Senate action.

New legislation was accompanied by the invocation of existing legislation to cancel other Obama-era regulations. The Congressional Review Act (CRA) permits Congress to rescind regulations by a Joint Resolution of the House and Senate within 60-legislative days of their being made final.

The Act had not been invoked by the Republican Congressional majorities during the Obama administration because of promised presidential vetoes. Trump’s announced willingness to sign changed all that.

Rolled back rules included:

  1. The Stream Buffer rule, which restricted coal companies from dumping waste into streams. (Feb 2)
  2. Bureau of Land Management planning 2.0 rule, which gave the public greater control over in natural resource and land use planning. (Feb. 2)
  3. SEC’s resource extraction rule, which required oil and gas companies to disclose foreign payments. (Feb. 3)

The only rule that made it through the gauntlet standing was the Bureau of Land Management rule on venting and flaring methane gases at oil and drilling sites on federal lands.

The different targets of Trumpeter attack are dictating the need for a variety of defenses. Trump’s honey-do list is impressive:

    • Rescinding all Executive Orders in support of clean energy and environmental action by federal agencies, e.g. directives to the Environmental Protection Agency to issue regulations reducing carbon emissions (CPP) and expanding coverage of the waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules to include upstream tributaries;
    • Failing to defend—aggressively—challenges to existing environmental regulations, e.g. CPP, WOTUS;
    • Opening federal lands to coal, oil and gas exploration/extraction;
    • Boosting conventional and unconventional production of fossil fuels, i.e. fracking, through active deregulation;
    • Asking Congress to amend or rescind numerous environmental acts, e.g. clean air and water, legislatively limiting the authorities of federal agencies;
    • Cutting climate related expenditures of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to blind our eye on the ravages wrought by global climate change;
    • Curtailing or cancelling U.S. involvement in international climate agreements;
    • Failing to honor monetary commitments for the deployment of clean energy and resiliency projects in developing countries;
    • Limiting issuance of any new energy/environmental regulations intended to combat  climate change serving to reduce harmful emissions and increase reliance on renewable energy and energy efficiency;
    • Using sovereign authority to cancel existing contractual commitments combatting climate change or supporting research/development/deployment of clean energy technologies;
    • Dismantling/diminishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy—particularly climate and clean energy programs, including research, development and loan guarantees;
    • Prohibiting the on-going development/application of social benefit cost analyses from federal decisionmaking procedures, e.g. clean power purchasing agreements or on-site installations;
    • Appointing federal court judges on record having rendered opinions limiting the scope of federal environmental protection authorities;
    • Prohibiting the use of federal funds for researching/ modelling/ accumulating climate change data;
    • Striking references to anthropogenic contributions to climate change in existing federal reports;
    • Appointing only Secretaries, Deputy and Assistant Secretaries to federal departments, agencies and offices who are of the opinion climate change is either a hoax or of so little consequence as to be unworthy of federal action.

Almost every effort to roll back or stay the many environmental regulations on the list has been, or will be, met with a legal challenge. Trump’s track record in court is not and will not be nearly as impressive as his and his doyens’ ambitions.

There have already been several court decisions overturning various administration efforts to stay the operation of Obama-era rules, e.g. methane, smog, auto efficiency standards, et. al. Within the past week EPA appears to be changing its approach.

Pruitt now seems to accept more readily the idea of having to amend and or to rescind various regulations by the numbers. Major rules require an agency to follow the same rulemaking procedures to modify them as it took to develop and release them.

A victory of sorts for climate defenders, this doesn’t change their objectives. It simply modifies their strategy for accomplishing them. The Trumpster is still free to: appoint pretty much who he chooses to fill agency vacancies; issue executive orders; and show the world that clean energy and the environment are under attack in the Age of Trump.

The Donald’s anti-regulatory agenda and casting of climate change as a hoax plays well to his hardcore supporters in the country—particularly in places like West Virginia. It also seems to play well with some of his friends abroad.

Nigel Farage, the UK’s answer to the alt-right, has commended The Donald for his having whited-out Obama’s signature on the Paris Agreement:

He puts in his manifesto, if elected, I will break the Paris accord and seek a better deal for America, and he’s elected on that ticket. And do you know what he does? Unlike almost every other Western world leader, including Theresa May, he sticks to what he promised he would do. It’s called democracy.

The Trumpster’s Russian buddy said of his calling climate change a hoax:

Those people who are not in agreement with opponents (of climate change) may not be at all silly.  (CNBC interview)

Looking back on the records of other Republican presidents in the period 1969 to 2017 one differentiating fact becomes immediately apparent—today’s unprecedented partisan enmity within national politics and the federal sector.

The contentiousness, frustration, enmity, quarter-truths, total lies and recriminations of the 2016 elections, have been carried forward  by the Trump administration and members of the 115th Congress. Historically some of the most far-reaching environmental programs, policies and protections occurred during Republican administrations and almost always with cross-aisle support.

Today’s talking-heads are quick to point out the parallels between Presidents Trump and Nixon, largely for the possibility of The Donald’s being evicted from the White House over his fondness for Russia and potentially shady deals.

Tricky Dick and The Trumpster may share the same code of ethics on some things; they could not be more different, however, when it comes to their views on the environment and the federal government’s role in protecting it.

The gridlock and division that marks politics today also means that changes in administration– without some corresponding change in the willingness of political leaders to collaborate–hold very little potential for the establishment of a stable and comprehensive national clean energy and environmental policy.

An early departure by Trump from office does not mean things would be better under Pence. Neither would Democratic victories in the 2018 mid-term elections or the 2020 presidential election portend a return to federal environmental activism, without a significant attitude adjustment by parties, presidents and members of Congress.

Therefore, the courts will remain the primary decisionmaker of environmental policy. A role they are ill-suited to play.

One may argue the finer points of today’s federal clean energy and environmental policies and programs. What cannot be convincingly disputed is the pivotal importance of a functioning federal government; one able to consider and to enact rational and integrative policies and programs based upon recognized science rather than doctrinaire beliefs.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga river caught fire unleashing an onslaught of legislation to prevent it from ever happening again. Both Democrats and Republicans joined together in response to a clear and present danger. Must the nation once more face disaster?

Are not melting ice packs, rising seas, droughts and heat impacting the nations farms and cities not enough to spur bi-partisanship? Must more of the Earth burn before our politicians learn to play well with each other? If the Earth did burn, could they stop their bickering long enough to act responsibly?

Graphics credit: https://cliparts.zone/graphic-novel-cliparts

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American politics, environmental regulation