A far-reaching executive order from President Donald Trump promising "a new era in American energy" drew swift rebuke from several Catholic groups, who charged that the directive would dismantle U.S. climate change policy, abandon the nation's moral responsibility as the world's no. 2 polluter to take action, and put corporate profits before people's health.
The March 28 executive order presented a sweeping set of directives aimed at rolling back core environmental regulations enacted under former President Barack Obama — most notably the Clean Power Plan rules on carbon emissions for existing fossil fuel power plants. The carbon rules formed the backbone of the U.S. commitment under the Paris Agreement to lower emissions 26 percent to 28 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2025.
The order itself did not address the Paris climate accord, but if fully enacted, puts achieving the U.S. pledge in serious doubt. A senior administration official told media members March 27 it is "still under discussion" whether the U.S. remains in the global pact to hold average global temperature rise between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
The White House framed the executive order as spurring energy independence and job creation primarily through elimination of unnecessary regulations. At a signing ceremony at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which authored the Clean Power Plan, Trump said of that rule that no other regulation poses more of a threat to coal miners and energy companies — two of the constituencies he's credited with his election.
More: "Florida bishop concerned US won't meet carbon emission goals after Trump order" (March 30, 2017)
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Opponents of the order instead viewed it as a drastic reversal of U.S. climate policy that puts at risk the communities most vulnerable to air pollution and climate change — most often, the poor, people of color and indigenous peoples, the elderly and children.
"We have a moral responsibility to care for our neighbors, across the street and across the world," said Patrick Carolan, executive director of Franciscan Action Network. "By eliminating the Clean Power Plan, the administration is showing that they value profits over human beings, many of whom are suffering now from our selfish decisions."
Roll back of regulations
The executive order directed a review and possible revision or full withdrawal of the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to curb carbon emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants by 32 percent, compared to 2005 levels by 2030. Power plants are the largest source of U.S. emissions, responsible for one-third of emitted greenhouse gases.
The order requests a similar review of emissions rules issued for new power plants, and directs all federal agencies to conduct a review of regulations on domestic energy sources — "with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy resources" — and to suspend, revise or rescind those deemed to present an undue burden on their development.
Other actions within the order:
- revoke Obama-era executive orders that required federal departments to consider the impact of climate change in decision-making;
- rescind Obama's Climate Action Plan, along with orders for federal agencies to reduce their carbon footprints and to help communities become more resilient to climate impacts;
- withdraw an Interior Department moratorium on new coal mining leases on federal land;
- direct a recalculation of the "social cost of carbon," currently estimated at $36 per ton, often used in justifying climate regulations;
- direct a rewrite of a rule restricting fracking on federal and tribal lands
- direct a review of a rule on methane emissions.
In a statement, Catholic Climate Covenant Executive Director Dan Misleh said the executive order "neither protects our common home nor promotes the common good."
"By rolling back current and proposed federal rules designed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from the power sector as well as discounting the social costs of fossil fuels, the Trump administration is jeopardizing not only the long-term sustainability of our planet but the immediate health and well-being of those with the fewest resources: the poorest and most vulnerable people at home and abroad," Misleh said.
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On a call with reporters, Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, re-upped the U.S. bishops' conference's continued support of a national carbon emissions standard and echoed Pope Francis' call for a moral approach to climate change that prioritizes the common good with special attention toward future generations and the poor, who lack the resources to withstand the impacts.
"The effects of climate change — melting glaciers, rising sea levels, stronger storms and increased drought — cause food and water stresses, illness, and fatalities that threaten human life and human dignity, and we believe are an assault on God's creation," Pates said.
Asked if climate change would be a focus of interactions the bishops have with the Trump administration, the Iowa bishop replied, "It has been and will continue to be, I think, a very high priority."
Since Trump's election, Catholic Climate Covenant — whose more than a dozen national partners include two departments within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Health Association, and Catholic Relief Services — and other Catholic groups have pressed through a series of letters and petitions that sought protection of the Clean Power Plan, along with maintaining U.S. presence in the Paris Agreement and financing of the international Green Climate Fund.
A March Gallup poll showed that the percentage of Americans concerned a great deal about climate change had reached a three-decade highmark, now sitting at 45 percent (62 percent express at least a fair amount of concern). The same survey found more than two-thirds of Americans affirming the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and caused by human activity.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans polled expressed a view that Trump would do a poor job protecting the nation's environment; the country was split on whether the new president would improve its energy policies.
Lengthy process ahead
Surrounded by a dozen coal miners and executives, Trump signed the order in EPA's Map Room where his remarks and those of several cabinet members made it decidedly clear that environmental protection was third on a list of three priorities, behind energy independence and job growth.
The president promised to eliminate regulatory overreach and said the order's signing was the "start of a new era in American energy and production and job production," repeating his promise to put coal miners back to work but refraining from uttering the words "climate change."
"That is what this is all about: bringing back our jobs, bringing back our dreams and making America wealthy again," Trump said.
At $18 trillion, the United States GDP is the highest in the world and is more than $7 trillion greater than China, which ranks second.
The order doesn't revoke the Clean Power Plan but instead begins the lengthy, perhaps years-long process that must first draft a new rule and defend the rationale for altering the current one. From there it would go through a public commenting period before a final rule could be issued, which is subject to judicial review. Environmental groups are expected to challenge any rule change in court.
For comparison, the Clean Power Plan took 14 months to move from proposal in June 2014 to final rule in August 2015, and it remains on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court while legal challenges from 27 state attorneys general, including current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, proceed. The D.C. Court of Appeals has yet to issue a ruling.
More: Supreme Court stay, vacancy raise questions about Clean Power Plan's future (Feb. 17, 2016)
At the time of the Clean Power Plan's issuance, the EPA estimated the rule would eliminate 870 million tons of carbon pollution, or the equivalent of removing 70 percent of the nation's passenger vehicles (166 million) from the road.
In addition, the plan projected extensive health benefits, an aspect 125 Catholic groups and universities stressed in a mid-February letter supporting the Clean Power Plan. According to EPA, the carbon rules would have amounted to as much as $54 billion annually in health and climate benefits by 2030, and lead to a reduction of 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 child asthma attacks, and 300,000 missed work and school days.
"We are deeply disappointed in President Trump's far-reaching executive order that protects polluters rather than people by attacking vital public health safeguards that protect American families," said Lyndsay Moseley Alexander, American Lung Association assistant vice president and director of its Healthy Air Campaign.
Moseley Alexander told reporters on the press call that the Clean Air Act, under which the Clean Power Plan was enacted, has led to a drastic reduction in air pollution and saved millions of lives. She added the order moves the U.S. backward in addressing clean air and climate change, and lets polluting industries off the hook at the expense of the nation's most vulnerable communities to air pollution: children, the elderly and people with lung and heart disease.
The mid-February Catholic letter to Trump noted that four-in-10 Latinos and two-thirds of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Such proximity can lead to increased rates of respiratory illnesses, like asthma, and cancer rates, said Adrienne Hollis, director of federal policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
"The Clean Power Plan was and is not only an opportunity to curb the impacts of climate change, but to reduce decades of environmental health inequity," she said.
Mustafa S. Ali, the former head of EPA's environmental justice program who resigned after the office was slated to lose all funding, added that the carbon rules play an important role in preventing the roughly 17,000 deaths each year as a result of electric power generation.
"Let's focus on building communities up and not tearing them down. … Let's continue to support a climate economy that strengthens communities who are often overlooked and forgotten," Ali said.
An 'all-out attack'
The executive order is the latest in a series of steps taken since Trump took office likely to fuel demonstrations and legal challenges from environmental advocates, who have planned a People's Climate March for April 29.
"This all-out attack on our communities and climate will be met with historic resistance," said May Boeve, executive director of the grassroots climate group 350.org, in a statement.
The executive order came four days after the Trump administration provided a long-sought permit to oil company TransCanada for the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, overturning a 2015 decision by Obama to deny the application on grounds that it would undercut U.S. leadership on climate change.
Trump, who has frequently called climate change a "hoax," also granted a final easement to complete construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline — the focus of the Standing Rock Sioux demonstrations — which has begun carrying oil. An earlier executive order called for review of the Waters of the United States rule that extended federal oversight over 60 percent of the nation's water bodies. Trump has indicated plans to roll back fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. His budget proposal called for cutting EPA's budget 31 percent.
"Together, we are going to start a new energy revolution — one that celebrates American production on American soil," the president said Tuesday, adding that the executive order followed through on his campaign promise to end the so-called "war on coal."
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Misleh of Catholic Climate Covenant challenged the Trump administration's argument for the order that it will create jobs and grow the economy by countering that the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors "are already experiencing an economic boom."
According to the Department of Energy, employment in the solar and wind energy sectors increased by 25 percent and 32 percent, respectively. The solar industry was the leading energy source in terms of electric power generation employment, accounting for 43 percent of the workforce (374,000 workers) compared to 22 percent (187,117 workers) of those in coal, oil and natural gas. The energy efficiency sector added 133,000 jobs in 2016, and overall employs 2.2 million people.
Despite solar and wind energy's accounting for two-thirds of new electricity-generating capacity, the majority of overall America's electrical generation still comes from fossil fuels, though coal has slipped behind natural gas as the primary electricity source.
While welcoming the president's executive order, Robert Murray, CEO of the nation's largest private coalminer Murray Energy, told The Guardian that Trump should "temper" his promises to bring back coal jobs, which have diminished more due to a natural gas boom and increasingly competitive renewables than from federal regulations.
"He can't bring them back," Murray said.
Editor's Note: This report has been edited to clarify which aspects of the executive order can go into effect without further review and which are directives for a review or revision process.