Obama's Climate Rules Are Safer Than They Seem
Those who support aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gases fear that the Donald Trump administration will undo all or most of President Barack Obama’s climate change initiatives. But those fears are probably unwarranted.
A good guess, based on a close look at the regulations that matter most, is that the Obama administration’s work on climate is more secure than most people realize; for the most part, Trump is unlikely to revisit it. (Disclosure: As administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, I had some involvement with most of these initiatives.)
As Trump’s transition team investigates which regulations he might reverse (and how much effort it will require), here’s what it’s likely to discover.
1: The endangerment finding. In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency started the process for using the Clean Air Act to address climate change by making an unambiguous scientific finding: Greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare. A new EPA administrator could reassess some of the details -- but in light of the law and the current science, it would be exceedingly difficult to overturn the finding itself. Any reversal would be unlikely to stand up in court.
Odds of surviving: Excellent.
2: Fuel economy standards for light-duty vehicles. Some of the most important climate change initiatives come from reducing the carbon emitted by light-duty vehicles, a program run jointly by the EPA and the Department of Transportation.
The first set of rules in that program, for the period between 2012 and 2016, is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 960 million metric tons over the lifetime of the vehicles sold during that time. A second set, governing 2017 through 2025, is expected to reduce emissions by a whopping 2 billion tons -- cutting oil consumption by about 4 billion barrels in the process. While the rules aren’t cheap, their benefits will exceed their costs by billions of dollars each year.
It would make little sense for the Trump administration to junk those standards, or even to make fundamental changes. The Clean Air Act requires some kind of action, and if the federal government backs off, California’s regulators will step up, and possibly move the national market even more aggressively than the Obama administration has.
There is a qualification: The Obama administration recently completed a technical review of its 2017-2025 program, proposing to keep the aggressive targets in place. The automobile companies, which have generally accepted the fuel economy program, have been more critical about the EPA's latest proposal. The new administration may want to weaken those targets -- but in view of the technical nature of the underlying findings, and the risk that any change will be struck down in court, it probably won’t make major revisions.
Odds of surviving: For the program in general, excellent; for the most recent targets, uncertain.
3: Fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles. In 2011, the EPA and DOT finalized the first-ever rule to regulate emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, such as combination tractors, school and transit buses, and utility service trucks. Covering model years 2014-2018, the rule is estimated to reduce carbon emissions by about 270 million tons. In 2016, the two agencies produced new regulations for heavy-duty vehicles for vehicles built through 2027; it is expected to lower emissions by as much as 1.1 billion tons.
There’s no point in the Trump administration revisiting the 2011 rule, which has already had its major effects. But the 2016 initiative will be subject to heavy scrutiny from both Congress and the new EPA head, because it will impose significant costs on the private sector. It’s doubtful, though, that Congress will have the votes to eliminate the rule, and it would take a lot of time and effort for the EPA to do so.
Odds of surviving: For the 2011 rule, excellent. For the 2016 rule, uncertain (but probably more likely than not to survive without fundamental changes).
4: Energy efficiency standards. The Department of Energy has issued more than forty energy efficiency regulations, governing refrigerators, clothes washers, small motors, clothes driers, microwave ovens and more. This may be the least visible part of the Obama administration’s effort to combat climate change, but it has had large consequences.
In 2015, for example, DOE issued energy conservation standards for air conditioning and heating equipment, and also for commercial warm air furnaces. By itself, that rule is expected to cut carbon emissions by as much as 885 million tons. The total emissions reductions from DOE initiatives are almost certainly in excess of 1.5 billion tons -- and for all of them, the benefits are far greater than the costs.
Energy efficiency standards are mandated by law; they also come from a consensus process, in which companies work closely with DOE to decide what kinds of standards are technologically feasible and economically justified. So it’s highly unlikely that the Trump administration will rescind or even alter them.
Odds of surviving: Excellent.
5: The Clean Power Plan. In the view of the public and of the Republican Party, this is the Obama administration’s most prominent effort to address climate change. The EPA estimated that by 2030, this rule would eliminate 870 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions -- and that the benefits (including substantial health gains) would be far higher than the costs.
If Trump wants to scrap the Clean Power Plan -- and it’s the most obvious target -- there may well be an avenue for doing that. The plan is now under challenge in federal court; his administration could ask the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that it will be reevaluating the rule. Trump’s EPA could then rescind the rule and say it’s considering other options.
But this approach is less straightforward than it seems. First, eliminating the rule would itself be subject to legal challenge; it would have to be shown to be reasonable in terms of both science and economics. Second, the Clean Air Act appears to require some regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from existing plans; the EPA can’t simply ignore the problem.
Odds of surviving: Uncertain.
Of course, predictions about what Trump will or won’t do are necessarily speculative. But with respect to climate change, critics of the Obama administration may be in for a surprise: There’s a whole lot that won’t be easy to eliminate -- or worth the trouble to try.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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