Burr & Forman

05.1.2017   |   Blog Articles, Climate Change, Environmental Law Matters

A Hodgepodge of Action and Thought on Climate Change

While the Trump Administration has taken steps to dismantle or revise many of the Obama Administration’s actions regarding climate change, there are conflicting opinions within the Administration and key businesses about the issue, the appropriate steps to take, and the consequences.

For example, Defense Secretary Mattis has made clear his view that climate change is real and that it will have a significant impact on U.S. military operations if preparatory actions are not taken.  (Science Magazine: Defense Chief Cites Climate Change National Security Challenge).  We noted in last month that others in the Administration acknowledge the reality of climate change, but differ on the policy implications.  (Acknowledging Climate Change)

Despite these and other concerns, the President has acted.  In late March, he visited EPA Headquarters to sign an Executive Order aimed at unraveling much of the prior Administration’s actions regarding climate change.  It also removed a requirement that federal officials consider the impact of climate change when making decisions.  (Trump at EPA).  Trump was surrounded by coal miners with the clear implication that these steps (along with an action lifting a moratorium on federal coal leasing) will rejuvenate the coal industry and its jobs.

Late last week, the President issued an Executive Order intended to expand drilling for oil and natural gas in offshore areas along the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as in the Artic.  (Executive Order Intends to Expand Offshore Drilling).  These areas had previously been excluded from drilling activities by the Obama Administration.

While there is at least some dispute within the Administration regarding the fundamental question of climate change, there is also a contradiction with respect to the likely long-term beneficiaries of a revision in climate change policies as anticipated by these two Executive Orders.  While coal-fired power was the focus of the Executive Order in March, and the President has generally promised that he will resurrect coal production jobs, the reality may be different, perhaps as a result of the second Order.  The expansion of drilling, particularly that involving development of new natural gas resources, actually will contribute to the continued availability of natural gas at lower cost than coal.  Low natural gas prices in recent years have prompted the electric power industry to convert many existing plants to burn natural gas rather than coal.  The fuel also burns much more cleanly resulting in significantly less greenhouse gas emissions than occurs with coal.  And thus, we have seen recently that oil companies, among others, are urging the Administration to remain a participant in the Paris Climate Accord.  A letter sent to the President last week suggests that the Paris agreement benefits U.S. companies by putting them on an even playing field and creates jobs through clean energy while reducing the risks associated with climate change.  (Oil Giants and Others Urge Trump to Stay in Paris Deal).  Why are big oil companies taking this position?  At least some recognize that those companies are also heavily involved in and expanding their production of natural gas.  (CNN Money: Big Oil and the Paris Climate Deal).  Thus, as a practical matter, the companies see natural gas as a fuel separate from oil that can expand their markets by replacing coal.  And those drilling jobs may prevent the return of jobs for coal miners.

While some in the Administration may continue to debate the existence or causes of climate change, the various actions by the Administration to reverse prior policy based on climate change issues may actually serve to prevent the resurrection of coal promised by the President during the campaign and in his remarks at EPA headquarters on March 28.  Ironically, and more broadly, they may also moderate the practical effects of these actions on the World’s climate.

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