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Trump Rolls Back Obama-era Environmental Rules

  • Peter Heinlein

President Donald Trump, accompanied by coal miners and, from left, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, second from right, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Vice President Mike Pence, far right, holds up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order at EPA headquarters in Washington, March 28, 2017.

President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order Tuesday that would effectively dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations, rekindling the highly charged partisan debate about how human activity affects the earth's climate, and deepening concern that decades of work on global climate treaties may be unraveling.

"We will put our miners back to work" and produce "really clean coal," Trump said during the signing ceremony.

"Many agree that would be disastrous," Dutch Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen told VOA in a telephone interview. "Whatever has been achieved could be destroyed, so I don't think many scientists would be pleased with this," said Crutzen, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize for work explaining the depletion of the earth's ozone layer.

WATCH: Trump orders review of Obama climate rules

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump believes he can balance twin goals of protecting the environment while promoting energy production in the U.S.

"The president strongly believes that protecting the environment and promoting our economy are not mutually exclusive goals," Spicer said during his daily White House media briefing. "This executive order will help to ensure that we have clean air and clean water without sacrificing economic growth and job creation."

Half-dozen rules

Trump's order will seek to suspend, rescind or identify for review more than a half-dozen rules, in an attempt to increase domestic energy production in the form of fossil fuels. It directs federal agencies to identify rules the administration says impede domestic energy production, as a first step in a 6-month process to create a blueprint for the administration's future energy policy. Included in the review will be the Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants.

The rollback also scraps many of former President Barack Obama's environmental initiatives and removes the requirement that federal officials weigh the impact of climate change when making decisions.

Trump has repeatedly signaled disdain for his predecessor's climate policy. On the campaign trail, he called Obama's Clean Power Plan "stupid," largely because it put in place what he called "job-killing" regulations. The executive orders he signed Tuesday direct the Environmental Protection Agency to thoroughly revise regulations outlined in the Clean Power Plan.

Trump's 2018 budget proposal slashes EPA funding by 31 percent, including an almost total cut of climate research funds. Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, told a White House briefing, "We're not spending money on that anymore."

FILE - The Ile Saint-Louis is illuminated with the lettering reading 'The Paris accord is done' in Paris, Nov. 4, 2016, to celebrate the first day of the application of the Paris COP21 climate accord.
FILE - The Ile Saint-Louis is illuminated with the lettering reading 'The Paris accord is done' in Paris, Nov. 4, 2016, to celebrate the first day of the application of the Paris COP21 climate accord.

International effect

Less clear is the president's commitment to international agreements such as the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, signed by Obama. Trump has an aversion to treaties that cede U.S. authority to global bodies, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, speaking Sunday on ABC's This Week, called the Paris treaty a "bad deal."

A hot issue

Leaked details of the executive orders ignited a firestorm among climate scientists.

Tim Barnett, emeritus research geophysicist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California, says even he, a Trump supporter, would find it "unconscionable" to roll back regulations contained in the Clean Power Plan.

"Global warming is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue," he said. "If you look at what's going on the Arctic, the Antarctic, by continuing to put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we're making the oceans more acidic. It is thought that by 2040, half the planktonic creatures will be under stress."

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune called Trump's order "the single biggest attack on climate action in U.S. history, period." Brune said the action ignores the growing clean energy economy that serves as the best way to protect both workers and the environment.

In Washington, views on climate change generally split along party lines. With Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, the views of climate skeptics, largely marginalized during the Obama years, are finding fresh voice.

The House Science Committee has scheduled hearings this week to look into the methods of climate scientists, as Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, pushes forward a bill to require the EPA to make public the data it uses to justify environmental regulations. The hearing will feature three prominent academics who question the scientific consensus, alongside Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University and author of the "hockey stick" graph that suggests a steep rise in the earth's temperature since fossil fuels came into wide use.

Speaking to VOA, Mann said the rising profile of climate change doubters in Washington is part of a well-funded campaign by big energy industry interests, mainly Charles and David Koch, who are major contributors to conservative political and policy groups.

"Trump's administration has been filled with individuals who have close ties to polluting interests, ExxonMobil obviously, but the Koch brothers, the largest privately owned fossil fuel interests in the country," Mann said. "... and their agenda has long been to gut all government regulations so they can increase their own profits from the sale of fossil fuels."

Climate skeptics agree money has corrupted the scientific debate, but they differ on its effect. The dissenters argue that fierce competition for the billions of dollars in government research grants has forced academics to exaggerate the danger of climate chance.

Richard Lindzen, professor emeritus of meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, represents the small minority of scientists who find fault with the overwhelming consensus on climate change. He argues universities have given in to the temptation to exaggerate climate change as they have become increasingly dependent on billions of dollars in government research funding, effectively making bureaucrats the real judges of science.

"We went way backward in studying climate and replaced it with this single variable, [CO2] and increased funding by 1500 percent and created a whole new community that had never studied climate but was willing to attribute everything to it," he said.

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