President Trump, despite being hamstrung by Russia probes and the fits and starts of health care reform, has enjoyed his greatest success to date on the energy and environment front, racking up far more accomplishments in that arena than any other during his first six months in office.
Since Mr. Trump set the tone by approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines during his first weeks in power, the administration has rolled back the Obama administration’s most controversial regulations, including the Clean Power Plan and Waters of the U.S. rule, and began opening up new areas on and off shore for energy exploration, scrapped emissions regulations at oil drilling sites, launched a review of national monuments to possibly free up more federal land for energy development, tossed rules aimed at limiting fracking, and taken a host of other steps.
In each of those instances, Mr. Trump simply undid executive orders put in place by his predecessor; former President Barack Obama’s use of executive power on energy and environment, analysts say, have made that a fairly easy area in which to take quick, decisive action.
Perhaps most notably, the president stuck by a central campaign promise — even in the face of intense opposition from within his own administration — and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, which had been Mr. Obama’s greatest achievement in his fight against climate change.
Specialists and even critics credit the progress to a relatively unified agenda on the part of both the president and Republicans in Congress, who largely have avoided the kind of in-the-weeds policy disagreements that have bedeviled them on health care and other areas. In addition, Mr. Trump tapped deputies — such as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — who were intimately familiar with the issues they’d face, and who hit the ground running in the effort to roll back the prior administration’s regulatory structure.
“President Trump, when he was a candidate, was remarkably consistent on this issue … It’s one of the few areas where the Republicans are largely unified, which makes it a bit easier to rally around,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the conservative Institute for Energy Research and a strong supporter of Mr. Trump’s energy agenda. “The first major step is to undo much of what Obama had done on the regulatory side.”
Indeed, the key to action on energy has been that there’s been little need up to this point for major legislation. Congress has pitched in by using the Congressional Review Act to eliminate Obama-era regulations passed during the final months of the last administration, but for the most part the White House, Interior and Energy departments, and EPA have done the heavy lifting.
Leading environmental groups, who have launched unprecedented resistance campaigns against Mr. Trump, acknowledged in recent days that the administration’s approach on energy and environment has been successful — though they, of course, believe the president’s actions have been deeply harmful.
“Six months in, and Donald Trump’s only achievements are diminishing America’s standing abroad and undermining essential protections for our families and communities at home to enrich fossil fuel executives,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said last week after the White House touted the next phase of its deregulatory push. “If you’ve been wondering why Trump is one of the least popular presidents in history, look no further than the exact things he is bragging about.”
Just this week, the Interior Department scrapped the previous administration’s rules limiting fracking on federal lands. While the regulations hadn’t gone into effect due to legal challenges, the move underscores the systematic approach the White House is taking as it dismantles regulations.
In addition to near-unified support from Republicans, Mr. Trump also has benefited from the policy expertise of those he tapped for key positions.
“The agency heads chosen are active individuals with significant experience in the area. For example, Administrator Pruitt brought a critical eye for federal overreach. Secretary Zinke brought attention to resource programs with particular reference to the West. And [Energy Secretary Rick] Perry presided over one of the largest energy economies in the world. Not a bad team to spot issues needing attention in energy and environmental regulation,” said Scott Segal, a leading environmental law expert at Washington’s Bracewell law firm.
Indeed, Mr. Pruitt in particular came into his post at the EPA already intimately familiar with the rules and regulations he’s spent the past several months undoing. The former Oklahoma attorney general, Mr. Pruitt built his political career and national reputation battling the Obama administration’s EPA in court, and racked up a number of key legal victories that delayed or stopped entirely new environmental regulations.
Mr. Pruitt and other attorneys general argued that the Obama administration had stretched to the breaking point the limits of executive power. Now, rather than continuing to fight those actions in court, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pruitt are using their own power to push in the opposite direction.
“The Obama Administration premised many of their most controversial rules on stretched interpretations of legal authority that required extraordinary deference to agency discretion,” Mr. Segal said. “Using agency discretion is a door that swings both ways, allowing the current administration to revisit, fix or suspend some of the most weakly grounded Obama rules.”
A secondary mission of the president and his deputies is to push back against critics’ claims that the administration is disregarding the environment. In comments at the White House last month, Mr. Perry stressed that the U.S. has been a global leader in cutting emissions, and that trend, he said, will continue even in the midst of a deregulatory push.
“There was one fact missing from the headlines about the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and that is that the United States already leads the world in lowering emissions. And we’ve done this through innovation and technology, not by signing agreements,” Mr. Perry said.