coal plant emissions
A presidential executive order signed this afternoon includes a review of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, among other measures. The Clean Power Plan, currently tied up in the courts, aims to cut carbon emissions from power plants such as this coal-fired electricity-generating station in West Virginia. Credit: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a move that the White House has signaled for weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump today signed an “energy independence and economic growth” executive order that rescinds, rolls back, and reviews a number of Obama administration climate change initiatives and policies.

The order initiates a review of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) to reduce carbon pollution from power plants; rescinds former President Obama’s broad Climate Action Plan to cut carbon pollution, prepare for climate change impacts, and lead international efforts to address climate change; ends a moratorium on coal leasing on federal land; rolls back the method for estimating the cost of climate change known as the social cost of carbon; and calls for a review of federal regulations “that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources.

“The action I’m taking today will eliminate federal overreach, restore economic freedom, and allow our companies and our workers to thrive, compete, and succeed on a level playing field for the first time in a long time,” President Trump said at a signing ceremony at the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D. C., where he was flanked by administration officials and coal miners.

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said. “With today’s executive action, I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations.”

A Different Direction

The executive order “is in keeping with President Trump’s desire to make the United States energy independent,” a senior White House official said at a briefing prior to the signing of the executive order.

The Trump administration has “a different view” from the Obama administration “about how you should address climate policies in the United States.”

President Trump, he said, “believes that we can serve the twin goals of protecting the environment and providing clean air and clean water, getting the EPA back to its core mission, while at the same time, again, moving forward on energy production in the United States. The United States is the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the world.” He continued, “We have plenty of deposits of coal. We want to look at nuclear, renewables, all of it. And again, we can do both to serve the environment and increase energy at the same time.”

He added that the Trump administration has “a different view” from the Obama administration “about how you should address climate policies in the United States. So we are going to go in a different direction.”

Whether or not the United States remains a party to the Paris climate agreement “is still under discussion,” the official said.

He conceded that rescinding the CPP, which currently is under litigation, likely would take some time in working through required review procedures and potential litigation. “There is no time frame in the executive order” for rescinding the CPP, “but I think [Environmental Protection Agency] administrator Pruitt is ready to hit the ground running on that one.”

Reaction to the Order

The executive order action “peels back the illusion of a policy fix that was designed to be ineffective in protecting our environment, as well as expensive to the American public,” according to Charles McConnell, executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University in Houston and a former assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy in the Obama administration. “My hope is that this will now launch the page-turning effort necessary to put real investment into technology for all forms of energy and not to continue on a path of passing regulations that pick winners and losers. It is time to embrace technology advancement for all forms of energy.”

The National Mining Association (NMA), a Washington, D. C.–based industry group, applauded the executive order for beginning to “unwind” the CPP and for lifting the federal coal moratorium. “The president’s actions today help to restore commonsense priorities and the important balance between costs and benefits that have been missing from federal regulatory policies,” said NMA president and CEO Hal Quinn. He said the that CPP was “an unlawful attempt to radically transform the nation’s power grid, destroying valuable energy assets and leaving our economy more vulnerable to rising power prices—all for no discernible environmental benefit.”

Environment Groups Respond

However, environmental groups and others concerned about the threat of climate change criticized the president’s action.

The executive order “ignores the law and scientific reality,” according to Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, a San Francisco–based environment group. “Dirty coal power is never coming back because it can’t compete with clean energy, and denial won’t make climate change go away.”

“In taking a sledgehammer to U.S. climate action, the administration will push the country backward, making it harder and more expensive to reduce emissions.”

Van Noppen said the executive order is an “ill-disguised fossil fuel industry wish list” that will “wreak havoc on efforts to tackle climate change and protect our communities.”

Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D. C., think tank, said the executive order will “undermine” people’s health and the U.S. economy. “In taking a sledgehammer to U.S. climate action, the administration will push the country backward, making it harder and more expensive to reduce emissions,” he said.

An analysis by the Rhodium Group, an international research consultancy and advisory company, shows that under the new executive order, greenhouse gas emissions would stabilize at around 14% below 2005 levels and hold through 2030 at that level, well above the level under the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan. The analysis shows that the executive order would leave the United States far from reaching its commitment under the Paris climate accord to reduce emissions by 26%–28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

Climate Economics

Noting that the executive order includes language about estimating the social cost of carbon, the White House official said, “The previous administration put out its own estimates, not in a very transparent fashion and in a fashion that we believe violates [White House Office of Management and Budget] policy. So, as a matter of federal policy, those estimates will no longer stand.”

However, Peter Howard, economics director for the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law, told Eos that the Trump administration is disregarding the economic costs of climate change to the nation’s domestic economy. “Doing so will come at the expense of current and future U.S. citizens,” he said. “At its essence, the social cost of carbon is simply a tool used to make sure our complete economic well-being is being considered when policies are evaluated.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: The American Geophysical Union’s Executive Director/CEO Christine McEntee today issued a statement in response to the executive order signed this afternoon by President Trump targeting the Clean Power Plan and other Obama administration policies and initiatives on climate change. Noting that “the scientific community has the information needed to formulate effective policies and actions to address the implications of climate change,” McEntee stated that “we encourage the Administration to take advantage of that resource.”


Showstack, R. (2017), White House issues sweeping executive order on energy, climate, Eos, 98, Published on 28 March 2017.

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