As soon as President-elect Donald Trump assumes office Jan. 20, Republican attorneys general who have spent the past eight years battling the Obama administration’s climate change agenda will have a new role: supporting the Republican president’s complex legal effort to roll back that agenda.
By contrast, states with Democratic leadership — such as California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has promised all-out war against Mr. Trump on global warming — will go from being environmental partners with the federal government to legal aggressors on their own.
Republicans have begun exercising their influence over the incoming president and his pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has built a political career by battling the very agency he is about to lead.
Earlier this month, 24 attorneys general signed an open letter laying out how the Trump administration could begin to dismantle President Obama’s global warming agenda. The effort was led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican who often partnered with Mr. Pruitt in bringing lawsuits against what they said was EPA overreach
The letter focuses on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a proposal to limit carbon emissions from power plants that requires all states to meet strict pollution guidelines laid out by the federal government.
Federal data show the plan would drive up electricity prices.
The Supreme Court this year issued a stay halting implementation of the Clean Power Plan, but Republican attorneys general are eager for the proposal to be formally taken off the books.
“The incoming administration and Congress now have the opportunity to withdraw this unlawful rule and prevent adoption of a similar rule in the future,” the attorneys general wrote. “An executive order on Day One is critical. The order should explain that it is the administration’s view that the rule is unlawful and that EPA lacks authority to enforce it. The executive order is necessary to send an immediate and strong message to states and regulated entities that the administration will not enforce the rule.”
The executive order, analysts say, is just the first step. Under Mr. Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA will have to go through a formal rule-making process to kill the Clean Power Plan, including public hearings, comment periods, draft proposals and other formalities that likely will take at least a year to complete.
“Soon after Trump takes office, they will issue a proposal to revoke the Clean Power Plan, but that will actually have to be a fairly comprehensive document that explains the rationale,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a leading environmental attorney and former assistant administrator at the EPA’s office for air and radiation. “They can’t just say that the president said to get rid of it and we’re going to do it.”
Because of the Supreme Court stay and the impending doom of the Clean Power Plan, Mr. Holmstead said, states can continue to ignore the emissions thresholds without penalty or threat of enforcement from Washington.
Some Democrat-led states are likely to continue implementing emissions reduction programs and are poised to become the EPA’s legal adversaries over the next four years. They will assume the job held by Mr. Pruitt’s Oklahoma and Mr. Morrisey’s West Virginia, completing a full role reversal.
In California, Mr. Brown has challenged Mr. Trump and Mr. Pruitt on climate change. With each step the Trump administration takes to kill the Clean Power Plan and other climate programs, California and other progressive states are sure to set up hurdles with lawsuits.
“We’re got a lot of firepower,” Mr. Brown said in a speech this month. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the universities, we’ve got the national labs, and we have the political clout for the battle. And we will persevere; have no doubt about that.”
The outspoken Democrat said California will launch its “own damn satellite” if the Trump administration stops satellites meant to track global warming and temperature patterns.
The New England coalition known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is expected to keep pursuing voluntary emissions reduction programs, even without arm-twisting from Washington.
The ultimate goal of the Trump-era EPA, analysts say, will be decentralizing power over environmental programs and allowing states such as California to continue harsh emissions limits if they choose.
“What I predict Pruitt will do is just go back to the original intention of the statutes [under the federal Clean Air Act] where states have a lot of discretion in how they implemented these things,” Mr. Holmstead said. “A state can always be more stringent than a federal statute allows.”