In his sixth week in office, the president ignores the national security threat as well as the real cause of the coal industry’s downturn.
Climate Change Ignorer
President Trump gave his first address to Congress on Tuesday. The first half of the speech focused on what Trump regarded as threats to American security: terrorism, ISIS, immigrants, drugs, and organized crime. Trump did not once mention climate change.
Since his inauguration, Trump has transitioned from denying the fact that climate change is happening to simply ignoring it. The topic of climate change has also begun disappearing from federal websites, and Trump’s advisors are apparently divided on what to do about the Paris climate agreement. Perhaps Trump hasn’t yet decided on his next move, or maybe he has simply stopped thinking about the landmark international agreement.
We have to hope that people whom Trump trusts in government—and not just his daughter—will keep climate change on the agenda. James Mattis, Trump’s handpicked defense secretary, at least recognizes the danger. In 2010, Mattis wrote the foreword to a military document that identified climate change as a key threat. If Trump is truly worried about our national security, he ought to take the issue seriously.
The last president to complete his term without ever mentioning climate change in his addresses to Congress was Ronald Reagan—and in Reagan’s defense, his final State of the Union speech, in 1988, came before climatologist James Hansen’s seminal warning to Congress about the dangers of global warming. If Trump intends to continue on this path, he will stand alone among modern presidents in ignoring one of the greatest threats to humanity.
A Dull Roar
In Tuesday’s speech, Trump promised that “dying industries will come roaring back to life.” He specifically mentioned the coal industry, railing against “regulations that threaten the future and livelihood of our great coal miners.”
Researchers at the New York Times, among many others, fact-checked this claim. They pointed out that regulations are not to blame for job losses in the coal industry. In fact, cheap natural gas paired with the falling price of renewable energy has hit the coal industry hard. Slashing environmental protections, as Trump has already begun to do, will not bring back coal jobs.
Trump’s false promises to coal miners are “cruelly hollow,” argues business columnist Jordan Weissmann in Slate. Watching your family and neighbors lose their jobs, steadily and inexorably over the course of years, is a terrible experience. (I know, because I grew up on the edge of Syracuse, New York, as all the factories were closing.) Anyone who offers help looks like a savior. But empty promises won’t put food on the tables of Appalachia.
When companies that mine on federal lands sell their coal, a percentage of the sale price goes back to the federal government. However, coal companies have been pulling a dirty trick on taxpayers for decades. (Even their tricks are dirty.) They sell the coal to an affiliated company at a depressed price, thereby artificially lowering the royalty owed to the government. Then they sell the coal again at a higher price to a utility or other third party in a royalty-free, arm’s-length transaction. The Obama administration closed this loophole as of January 1.
This week Trump’s Interior Department told coal companies they could go back to cheating taxpayers out of billions of dollars. The windfall won’t even benefit miners or create jobs—the vast majority of federal coal comes from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, where the surface mines employ relatively few miners. The reopening of the royalty loophole is merely a giveaway of taxpayer dollars. Hopefully it’s not a preview of how newly confirmed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke intends to operate.
Slash and Burn
President Trump’s first budget proposal aims to increase military spending by 10 percent and cut discretionary nondefense spending to offset that splurge. One of the primary victims of the cuts would be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—even though its budget makes up a minuscule portion of what would be Trump’s military increase. According to reports, Trump intends to slash the agency’s budget by 25 percent and eliminate one in five EPA jobs.
If approved, the budget would set back the EPA’s budget to 1991 levels and staffing to 1980s levels. Let’s put those numbers into perspective. In the mid-1980s, the EPA did not significantly regulate carbon dioxide emissions, acid rain, or ozone-depleting chemicals. The U.S. labor force was 28 percent smaller and the national economy was about half its present size. An agency can’t regulate a 2017-size economy with a 1980s-size staff.
Fortunately, Trump’s budget is not likely to be approved in anything resembling its current form. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham called the proposal “dead on arrival.” Even Mitch McConnell, the sometimes ally of Trump, dismissed the budget with a haughty “probably not.”
Muddying the Waters
President Trump’s solution for “fixing everything” seems to be an executive order. When he finishes a soda, I wouldn’t be surprised if he issues an executive order for a refill. (“By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered that I need some more Fanta.”)
And so on Tuesday Trump issued the 14th executive order of his young presidency, this one aimed at deregulating pollution in U.S. streams and wetlands. The rule in question has a complicated history. A pair of Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 obfuscated the federal government’s authority over waterways like streams and wetlands that empty into larger bodies of water, which do fall indisputably within the purview of the Clean Water Act. In 2015, after years of study and public comment, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers issued a clarifying rule that reestablished federal authority over those smaller bodies of water. The regulation is popularly known as the Waters of the United States rule. The logic is clear—it’s impossible to keep Chesapeake Bay clean if the streams flowing into it are polluted.
Trump claims, with no basis in fact, that the rule would handicap American farmers. FYI: Several farming organizations publicly support the Waters of the United States rule. Moreover, almost one-third of the freshwater used in our country goes toward irrigating crops. I, for one, would like that water to be clean.
Fortunately, Trump’s executive order has no legal effect. To repeal the Waters of the United States rule, the EPA must go through the rulemaking process, including a public notice and comment period. Then it must provide a rational basis for deregulating the pollution of U.S. waterways. (Good luck with that, Scott Pruitt.) The executive order itself isn’t much more than a show.
Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.