The Trump Administration Pushes Forward with its Fossil Fuel Agenda
Fossil Fuel Industry Support
It’s no secret that the Trump administration has been a staunch advocate for the expansion of the American fossil fuel industry. Slashing environmental regulations and creating policies to support growth in the oil, natural gas, and coal sectors has long been among some of President Trump’s most ambitious and controversial campaign promises. As part of his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump outlined a plan to revive an energy industry that he said was greatly weakened by policies set by the Obama administration. Despite intense criticism from environmental advocates and natural resource professionals, Trump’s energy plan essentially called for developing more fossil fuels with fewer regulations around oil and gas drilling, pipeline infrastructure, and environmental permitting. In response to these plans, the leaders that assembled the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have labeled Trump’s promises as extremely threatening to the future health of the planet. Even with this international pushback, Trump continued to move forward with a series of fossil fuel initiatives during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
As an alternative to working alongside other global leaders to limit carbon emissions by introducing initiatives to reduce the future production of coal, oil, and natural gas, the Trump administration has worked in direct opposition of the United Nations and the principles of the Paris Agreement by vowing to boost American fossil fuel production. As a result of Trump’s promise to increase the use of fossil fuels in the United States, the United Nations fears that America will lead the way towards a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The vast majority of scientists keep reiterating that increasing emissions will elevate global temperatures that will increase the pace of melting of glaciers, create a surge in sea level rise, augment the frequency of extreme weather, and make many regions around the world uninhabitable for millions of people (Leahy, 2019). While the notion of these impacts may seem tremendously troubling for the average citizen, the Trump administration has continued to downplay the impact of climate change, even labeling it as a hoax.
As the nation has attempted to recover from the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Trump administration solidified efforts to dismantle key principles of the National Environmental Policy Act. This environmental law was established in 1970 to ensure that federal agencies comprehensively review potential environmental impacts associated with the construction of transportation projects, airports, pipelines, and oil and gas drilling operations. At the beginning of June, Trump moved to eliminate a number of requirements. As part of the executive order to relax the rules related to this landmark environmental law, Trump said that, “From the beginning of my Administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays” (Ramirez, 2020). Some energy excerpts were surprised that the Trump administration has continued to focus a great deal of effort on energy initiatives in the midst of a global pandemic. Trump has directed both the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior to take action to bolster the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil Fuel Leases
Earlier this year, representatives from the Department of Energy outlined a plan to spend $2.5 billion to purchase 77 million barrels of crude oil from American oil companies to fill up the country’s strategic reserve of petroleum (Kaufman & D’Angelo, 2020). Similarly, around the same time that the Department of Energy made this announcement, the Department of the Interior said that it was ordered to move forward with a number of new fossil fuel lease sales. These sales would allow the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to open up 78 million acres of ocean parcels within the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration (Kaufman & D’Angelo, 2020). The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management used a bidding process to auction off the land, which was met with criticism from many of the nation’s top energy experts. As a result of the country being in the midst of a pandemic, the bidding process yielded only a handful of extremely low bids. With $93 million generated in high bids, this was representative of the lowest bidding total for offshore oil and gas exploration since early 2016 (Groom, 2020).
Even though the bids for the oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico didn’t yield as much profit as was originally expected, the fossil fuel industry as a whole has been commending the Trump administration’s efforts to cut regulations and offer support during the coronavirus pandemic. In a series of actions aimed at making it easier and more streamlined for fossil fuel companies to move forward with energy projects, the Trump administration signed off on an executive order that was designed to permanently diminish the federal government’s ability to enforce rules related to climate change and the Clean Air Act. This executive order also allowed federal agencies to completely wave environmental reviews during the coronavirus crisis. At the same time that this executive order was signed, the Environmental Protection Agency also proposed new rulings that would limit how the Clean Air Act would employ cost-benefit analyses. This move was meant to hinder the development of future pollution control policies.
A Wave of Deregulation
The wave of deregulation and initiatives to disassemble historic environmental regulations fits in well with Trump’s presidential campaign promise to do whatever it takes to revive the fossil fuel industry. Some of these efforts have changed the way that the government can evaluate public health benefits, which would give Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler the ability to alter regulations related to climate change and air pollution if it meant that economic activity would be improved. As a result of the coronavirus impacts on the economy, federal agencies now have the option to invoke emergency authority to waive requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act in order to build pipelines, highways, and other energy projects. In response to these actions, a number of lawyers and environmental advocates continue to challenge the legality of these efforts.
Richard Lazarus, who is a long-time professor of environmental law at Harvard University, says, “When it comes to trying to unravel this nations’ environmental protection laws, this administration never sleeps” (Brady, 2020). These efforts by the Trump administration not only weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, but they will also impact the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Prior to making a decision to overhaul these environmental regulations, the White House Council on Environmental Quality held public hearings in Washington, D.C. and Denver, Colorado to hear feedback from members of the public and a panel of experts from a variety of commercial, environmental, and economic organizations. The public testimony overwhelmingly supported the existing safety, health, and ecological regulations as outlined within National Environmental Policy Act. However, these messages of support for the existing policies did not have an impact on the Trump administration’s efforts to gut these regulations.
Pushback from Federal Judges
In response to the Trump administration’s efforts to push forward with an agenda focused on the fossil fuel industry, a significant number of federal court judges have started to deliver a series of rulings against the administration. Judges have started to rule that the current administration has failed to address climate change and protect the environment in order to promote the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Associate Dean Mark Squillace of the University of Colorado Law School says that, “Many of the decisions the Trump administration has been making are arguably illegal and, in some cases, blatantly so” (Brown, 2020). As an environmental specialist and a natural resources lawyer, Squillace has said that many federal judges are refusing to resurrect permitting programs for fossil fuel infrastructure, canceling oil and gas leases, and requiring more environmental reviews prior to making concrete decisions on the Trump administration’s efforts.
An interesting aspect about the pushback from the federal judges has been related to their political backgrounds. Appointees of both Republican and Democratic administrations have been delivering a series of rebukes against the Trump administration. For example, Judge Lewis Babcock of Colorado is a federal judge appointed by Ronald Reagan. Babcock ruled against the Trump administration by canceling efforts to move forward with 171 natural gas wells because of the perceived impact to elk and mule deer populations (Brown, 2020). Similarly, other Republican judges in Idaho and California have delivered energy-related setbacks for the Trump administration. While environmental advocates praise the bipartisan efforts to uphold environmental regulations, energy data suggests that the Trump administration is still making tremendous progress to boost fossil fuel production.
The Big Picture
An oil and gas lobbying firm known as the Western Energy Alliance has been a vocal advocate for oil and gas production. President Kathleen Sgamma says that it is important to look at the big picture when it comes to the battle over energy resources across the nation. Since the United States surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer in 2018, Sgamma says that the energy battle has clearly started to favor the fossil fuel advocates over the environmentalists. Overall, Sgamma says that the Trump administration’s fossil fuel agenda has been wildly successful, especially with the significant amount of pushback from grassroots organizations and federal courts. In response to the efforts to shoot down Trump’s energy agenda, administration officials say that the setbacks have been relatively minor in comparison to what the administration has already been able to achieve. In addition to still being committed to upholding environmental protection and the health of the American public, the Trump administration says that they are creating jobs, saving money for taxpayers, and reviving the fossil fuel industry.
A Major Victory for Fossil Fuels
In May, the Trump administration achieved a major victory for fossil fuel companies by rolling back a limit to toxic mercury pollution from power generating facilities. The Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration created a rule that was aimed at reducing the amount of mercury emissions from power plants. However, after an economic analysis found that it would cost the fossil fuel industry $9.6 billion annually, the Trump administration scrapped this ruling (Davenport & Friedman, 2020). Fossil fuel executives applauded the administration’s efforts to dismantle this rule.
On the other hand, environmental advocates slammed the Trump administration for failing to protect the public from mercury pollution. Richard Revesz, who is an environmental lawyer with New York University, said that, “At a time when more than 100,000 Americas have died from COVID and we know about this connection, the Trump administration is going to put in place some analytical techniques that will make it easier for them to kill more Americans” (Davenport & Friedman, 2020). Environmental experts from the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have expressed a similar level of frustration with the Trump administration, saying that the deregulation efforts have been a handout for the fossil fuel industry at the expense of the environment and public health.
Brady, J. (2020). “Trump Administration Limits States’ Power To Stop Oil And Gas Pipelines.” NPR.
Brown, M. (2020). “Trump’s fossil fuel agenda gets pushback from federal judges.” ABC News.
Davenport, C., and Friedman, L. (2020). “Trump, Citing Pandemic, Moves to Weaken Two Key Environmental Protections.” The New York Times.
Kaufman, A., and D’Angelo, C. (2020). “Not even a pandemic can stop Trump from pushing fossil fuels.” Grist Magazine.
Groom, N. (2020). “Could have been substantially worse: U.S. offshore oil lease sale weakest since 2016.” Reuters.
Leahy, S. (2019). “Dangerous levels of warming locked in by planned jump in fossil fuels output.” National Geographic.
Parker, A., and Davenport, C. (2016). “Donald Trump’s Energy Plan: More Fossil Fuels and Fewer Rules.” The New York Times.
Ramirez, R. (2020). “Trump trashes 50-year-old environmental law, blames coronavirus.” Grist Magazine.