President Trump Tuesday signed a sweeping executive order to dismantle a range of Obama administration policies aimed at curbing climate change, a move that drew sharp criticism from environmental advocates across New England and the country.
The executive order directs the US Environmental Protection Agency to rescind the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s signature climate policy that targeted carbon emissions at power plants fueled by coal and other fossil fuels. That plan has yet to take effect, as federal courts decide whether it’s constitutional.
Trump’s order also seeks to revoke a host of other Obama environmental policies, such as a short-term ban on new coal mining on public lands and other policies that sought to limit pollution. It comes shortly after Trump ordered a review of vehicle fuel-efficiency standards put in place during the Obama administration.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey joined a coalition of public officials from across the country in opposing the executive order and vowing to defend Obama’s environmental policies.
“We won’t hesitate to protect those we serve, including by aggressively opposing in court President Trump’s actions that ignore both the law and the critical importance of confronting the very real threat of climate change,” she said in a statement. “Addressing our country’s largest source of carbon pollution — existing fossil fuel-burning power plants — is both required under the Clean Air Act and essential to mitigating climate change’s growing harm to our public health, environments, and economies.”
The order eliminates a number of restrictions on fossil fuel development in an effort to encourage domestic energy production. Trump said the reduced regulation would spark “a new energy revolution” and bring back coal mining jobs, an assertion many labor experts dispute.
It also would eliminate smaller Obama-era provisions designed to fight climate change. For example, it would also eliminate a requirement that federal agencies consider the impact on climate change when analyzing all future environmental permits.
Obama’s Clean Power Plan, unveiled in 2015, was projected to eliminate the carbon pollution emitted by more than 160 million vehicles a year, or 70 percent of the nation’s passenger cars, she said.
Trump’s executive order could take a year or more to implement and will almost certainly face legal challenges.
It doesn’t withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord, in which nearly 200 countries pledged specific policies to reduce carbon emissions. But discarding the Clean Power Plan, which served as the centerpiece of the US pledge to cut emissions, signals that the United States is unlikely to live up to its Paris commitments and could spur other countries to abandon the pact, climate change specialists said.
“Great nations, like great individuals, lead by rallying others to work together to meet threats,” said Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, which specializes in climate change research. “The executive order issued today puts the United States in the disgraceful and disadvantageous position of being alone among 195 nations in not recognizing the pervasive threat of global climate change.”
The move will “isolate this country from the rest of the world” and “is hugely damaging to our global reputation and to our environment,” he added.
Climate scientists say the planet is already experiencing the impact of global warming.
Sixteen of the 17 warmest winters on record have occurred since 2001, according to government reports. The rate of sea rise over the past decade was nearly double that of the previous century, and climate models suggest that it will likely accelerate substantially in the coming decades, rising between 3 and 8 feet by the end of the century. Glaciers are in retreat from Greenland to Antarctica, and the winter peak of ice covering the Arctic Sea this year set a record low for the third consecutive year.
In Massachusetts, which has some of the nation’s most progressive policies to curb carbon emissions, much of the state’s population lives in areas vulnerable to rising seas, especially from more powerful storms.
“The impacts of climate change are big and very real for the Bay State, which has 1,500 miles of coastline,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon, the state’s oldest conservation group. “About 85 percent of the state’s 6.7 million residents live within 50 miles of the coast. Big coastal storms are going to have significant and increasing impacts on our lives.”
Without a national approach to reducing greenhouse gases, Massachusetts and other Northeastern states will continue to suffer a disproportionate impact, specialists said. Through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap and trade program that took effect across the Northeast in 2008, emissions from regional power plants have fallen nearly 40 percent.
In addition, most New England states have pledged to cut carbon emissions substantially in the coming years. In Massachusetts, state law requires officials to cut emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 — and 80 percent below those levels by 2050.
“In short, Trump’s order is an affront to everything Massachusetts and the region are doing to respond to the serious and growing threat of climate change,” said Peter Shattuck, director of the clean energy initiative at the Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group in Boston. “With the federal government abdicating responsibility for dealing with one of the greatest threats of our time, state and regional leadership is now more important than ever.”
In a statement, Baker administration officials said the state would continue to pursue aggressive measures to reduce emissions and make the state less vulnerable to climate change.
“The Baker-Polito administration is committed to ensuring that Massachusetts remains nationally recognized as a leader in combating climate change,” said Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Representatives of the region’s fossil fuel industry acknowledge that the president’s order is unlikely to inspire a resurgence of coal or other fossil fuels in New England. Only about 1 percent of the region’s electricity still comes from coal. Brayton Point, Massachusetts’ last coal-fired plant, is closing in June.
In New England and elsewhere, coal has been replaced mainly by cheap natural gas. But competitive hydroelectric power and increasingly economic renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, also make a coal comeback unlikely.
But if the president’s policies succeed in reviving the coal industry in places like West Virginia and Kentucky, New England would still be affected, and not just because of the increased carbon emissions.
“Those plants will create new pollution, and the prevailing winds that blow west to east, will carry that pollution to us,” said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “Pollution doesn’t stop at a state’s borders.”