State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


A Small Senate Victory Maintains Methane Regulation

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

The Trump Administration’s relentless march to repeal federal regulations is not limited to environmental rules, but the environment is a real target. The shame of these attacks is that rather than seeking to improve and refine our approach to environmental protection, we see a destructive effort at dismantling the structure of environmental law. The attack thus far has focused on Obama-era executive orders, since those are easier to change than rules issued by EPA, sometimes under court order, to implement specific statutory requirements. Writing in the New York Times last week, environmental journalist Coral Davenport reported that:

“…the Senate voted on Wednesday to uphold an Obama-era climate change regulation to control the release of methane from oil and gas wells on public land. Senators voted 51 to 49 to block consideration of a resolution to repeal the 2016 Interior Department rule to curb emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming greenhouse gas. Senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine, all Republicans who have expressed concern about climate change and backed legislation to tackle the issue, broke with their party to join Democrats and defeat the resolution.”

The problem with U.S. national environmental law is that, with very few exceptions, it was enacted in the 1970s and 1980s and has not really been updated since then. The laws have been incredibly successful in cleaning our air, land and water, but that does not mean new threats have not emerged, or old threats could not reappear. Our technology continues to advance, our population and economy continues to grow, and environmental protection requires constant vigilance. A constructive and creative effort to update environmental law is long overdue, but this is not the time or place to undertake such a task.

The crowd running the country these days could care less. They take for granted the clean air and clean water that America worked hard to achieve in the second half of the twentieth century. Trump’s real estate and branding empire has benefited enormously from the work of thousands of dedicated environmental activists and regulators. While I see little hope of modernizing the environmental regulatory structure under the current regime, last week provided some hope that the U.S. Senate won’t allow our environmental laws to be dismantled.

Although state laws provide another critical layer of environmental protection, airsheds do not recognize state boundaries, and pollution prohibited by one state can easily blow in from an adjoining state. In fact, Senator McCain’s vote was partially explained by his concern that dirty air from New Mexico could pollute the air in Arizona. My hope is that state and local environmental concerns can counter the anti-regulatory zeal of the extreme right. As Pew reports in its most recent survey of environmental attitudes:

“…about three-quarters of U.S. adults (74%) said “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” compared with 23% who said “the country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment.”

But the survey also indicates growing partisanship on environmental regulation. Nearly 60% of Republicans think that environmental regulation reduces economic growth and employment. Before the Great Recession only 34% of Republicans held that factually inaccurate view. Conservative ideology may argue that environmental regulation costs jobs, but the opposite is true. Environmental protection is a “product line” that stimulates growth and employment. People will pay for clean air and water, and the technology that cleans air and water adds to the GDP. While conservative ideology is anti-regulation, the environment is so important to health that even these folks favor the government doing “whatever is needed” to protect the air, water and land. But the Pew study worries that people are inconsistent in their support of environmental protection. The study notes that the environment doesn’t rank as high as other issues and that many people don’t live “environmental lifestyles”.

My view is that America’s environmental attitudes and values are quite consistent and the Pew analysts are misreading how the environment works as a policy issue and lifestyle choice. As a policy issue, the environment always has tremendous latent power. The public knows that the air and water are cleaner than they used to be.  If people believed the environment was getting worse, it would move up on their public policy issue priority list. High ranking on policy issues results from a combination of the issue’s importance and government’s progress in addressing the issue. For example, crime in New York City used to be the number one local policy issue, but today it’s far down the list. If the crime rate spiked upward, however, it would quickly move up the issue ranking list. People know that the NYPD is hard at work and don’t think they need to worry about the issue. As for lifestyle choices, people like modern conveniences and will not give them up. Moreover, they have learned that advances in technology can improve environmental quality and their own behavior is less important than the use of those technologies. Their new air conditioner, refrigerator and light bulbs use less energy than the old ones did; Apple will buy back their old iPhones; today’s cars pollute less than yesterday’s clunkers. But the traditional environmentalist view is that to protect the environment we must reduce consumption. My view is that consumption must change, but that we can grow our economy while doing a better job of managing environmental impacts.

There is a great deal of concern in the environmental community that the Trump Administration will damage the nation’s environment. I share that concern. The administration’s denial of basic climate science and willingness to tolerate pollution from extraction industries is a cause for alarm. The likelihood of environmental disasters will increase and public mobilization will take place in response to environmental destruction. We saw this in 1983 when then President Ronald Regan abandoned his original environmental team and brought back the original EPA Administrator, William Ruckelshaus. We saw public mobilization after the BP oil spill, the VW emission scandal, and the lead water crisis in Flint. Visible, dangerous pollution crises bring out the environmentalist in all of us. As I often say, “people really like to breathe.”

While EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt understands the regulatory process, the slow pace of assembling his team has made it difficult to rapidly dismantle environmental rules. I don’t believe that Pruitt and Trump want to completely deregulate the environment. It would be an enormous undertaking and even a more skilled and experienced set of government officials would have difficulty reengineering the entire federal environmental regulatory structure. There is now nearly a half century of law and case precedent in place. Any fundamental change in the legal structure would require action by Congress. The current Congress can’t even enact the health care reform they ran on, and the reaction to deregulating the environment would be fierce and intense. Any revision of environmental law would need to go through the same senate, which last week voted to maintain methane regulation.

From my perspective, the problem with all of this is that we are working so hard to simply stand still. We need to learn more about the planet and our impact on it if we are to manage those impacts. We need to develop new technologies to make the transition from our throw-away economy to a sustainable and renewable one. Our race against time to address the climate crisis needs a fully engaged U.S. government. Instead, these next several years will see the U.S. federal government opposing the transition to a sustainable economy; this will harm the country and imperil the planet.

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