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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has undertaken a rollback of environmental regulations unlike anything in U.S. history, promising new manufacturing and industrial activity in the United States while drawing dire warnings from environmentalists.
But so far, the real-world effects of those actions have been blunted by a push against climate change that has galvanized corporations to invest in clean energy, state legislatures to enact their own limits on carbon emissions and environmental attorneys to fight Trump in court.
Trump rolled back fuel economy standards, but automakers are still investing heavily in electric vehicles. Trump relaxed rules on power plant emissions to help the coal industry, but coal-fired generators are shutting down because they can’t compete with lower-cost natural gas and renewable energy.
The muted effects of Trump’s campaign against regulation demonstrate the limited power presidents have in shifting the direction of the country in the face of economic, social and, as the coronavirus has shown, natural forces. The task is particularly difficult when presidents fail to win over Congress, as Trump has on his environmental agenda — despite Republican control in his first two years.
That has forced Trump to rely on executive orders and administrative changes, preventing deeper, longer-lasting changes to U.S. law and relegating his administration to tinkering around the edges of how the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies carry out their work.
“The old expression, we’re a nation of laws and not people,” said Scott Segal, a Washington energy attorney. “As an individual, the president can hope for all the change he or she wants, but without working through the process it’s very difficult to make durable change.”
Case in point: oil and gas pipelines. Trump ordered aides to find ways to circumvent governors, such New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who refuse to approve pipelines in their states. But under the Clean Water Act, states are granted the right to stop projects they deem potentially harmful to their waterways.
Getting around that would require a change in the law. Even Republicans balked, concerned about stepping on the rights of state governments.
Tech trumps tariffs
Trump’s campaign to grow fossil fuels, often at the expense of wind and solar energy, has not gone as expected. In 2018, when the administration put a 30 percent tariff on solar panels, targeting cheap Chinese imports, analysts predicted the solar industry would sustain a severe blow.
But a year later, residential installations had increased by roughly 15 percent, driven by declines in the cost of solar technology.
“Even with Trump not pushing renewables, there’s enough of a foothold it’s still growing,” said Pablo Diaz, CEO of Direct Solar of America, an Arizona company that installs rooftop solar systems.
The Trump administration defends its deregulatory push as necessary to grow American industry, which it maintains was stifled by excessive regulation. But so far, there is little evidence of the economic gains Trump promised.
During Trump’s first three years, manufacturing jobs grew 4 percent, in line with the increases during the administration of President Barack Obama. Oil and gas drilling jobs grew 4 percent to almost 156,000 in those three years, but those gains came as crude prices rose from the 2016 bottom of the previous oil bust. In 2015, the industry employed nearly 200,000.
The environmental impact of Trump’s policies also is hard to discern. Carbon dioxide emissions are down slightly since 2016, but nowhere near what scientists say is needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
“There’s larger economic forces at play like the decline of coal and the drop in oil prices,” said Luke Metzger, director of the activist group Environment Texas. “It’s hard to separate out the impacts.”
Trump’s impact is perhaps felt most in environmental enforcement — to the benefit of polluters. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, the EPA referred only 123 pollution cases to the Department of Justice for civil action, down more than 40 percent from the annual average under Obama and less than half the annual average during the George W. Bush administration, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit advocating for better enforcement of environmental laws.
Do no harm
Oil and gas industry officials, meanwhile, credit Trump with speeding drilling permits on federal lands and approving controversial projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline, which were rejected under Obama.
“First and foremost, President Trump has not actively done harm to the energy industry,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a trade group representing fossil fuel companies. “That in and of itself is a huge benefit to the entire economy and a dramatic about-face from the Obama-Biden administration.”