Pruitt is poised to kill the climate rule. What’s next?

Source: Zack Colman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 5, 2017

When Scott Pruitt moves to repeal the regulation governing power plant emissions that he’s spent years trying to defeat, his advocates and detractors alike know it may well be the finishing touch on his first act as U.S. EPA administrator.

What comes next is where the drama begins. The forthcoming regulation could be a warmup for the finale — an airing of climate science that either by design or inadvertently shakes public confidence in what scientists understand about how we’re heating the planet.

“There’s the reality, and then there’s what they might attempt to do,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There’s no question that he’s trying to make mischief here and looking for any avenue possible to try to undermine those authorities EPA has.”

This much is known: As soon as this week, Pruitt will order his agency to begin working on a regulation to replace the Clean Power Plan, the carbon rule issued by President Obama that aims to cut electricity-sector emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (Climatewire, Sept. 27).

Some in conservative circles — including fringe players whom President Trump’s insurgent presidency has elevated to new prominence — are dismayed that traditional power players like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce appear poised to get their way in asking for a carbon rule to ensure regulatory certainty.

Those on the far right want the rule decimated, not replaced with a weaker one. They want Pruitt to load the harpoon to take down their white whale — the endangerment finding. That finding, which says human-caused greenhouse gas emissions imperil public health, underpins climate regulation.

That Pruitt, who has openly questioned whether EPA has the right “tools” to address greenhouse gas emissions, might offer a scaled-back carbon regulation doesn’t mean he’s dropping loftier pursuits on climate science and deregulation, observers said.

“Moving forward with a [Clean Power Plan] rewrite does not necessarily mean the administration intends to abandon a review of the endangerment finding. The CPP is an active regulation that must be dealt with now and largely, unfortunately, through the framework established by the previous administration,” Tom Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, said in an email. “It will take time for the Trump administration to change the way the federal government handles greenhouse gas regulation. In the interim, they can’t just put everything on hold.”

But Pruitt has never publicly said he’d take the endangerment finding to task, which many on the political right and left agree would be almost impossible to overturn given the body of scientific evidence supporting it.

Pruitt has, however, flirted with challenging climate science through a “red team, blue team” exercise to test its assumptions. It’s a card he may play even as his agency devotes resources to writing new power plant carbon regulations.

With EPA homing in on a power plant regulation, some are increasingly wondering what shape a red team, blue team exercise will take and what purpose it will ultimately serve. But even some of the concept’s supporters are openly questioning how aggressively the administration will pursue the suggestion.

“My answer is a question: why have we heard so little about the red team/blue team issue from the Administration recently?” Pat Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute, said in an email.

It’s not necessarily a debate that industry or some Republicans want. One industry lawyer called it a distraction designed to let skeptical ideologues feel they’ve won a battle without actually resulting in substantive policy change.

Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma, understands that the preservation of the endangerment finding means EPA needs to take some sort of action, Pyle said. But that doesn’t preclude Pruitt from challenging the climate regulatory system in the future, he said.

The red team, blue team debate is one way of addressing the climate architecture, Pyle said. He noted it could go beyond the endangerment finding by investigating things like the social cost of carbon, an economic tool used to assign a monetary value to the benefits of reducing carbon emissions.

“It may help build a case to take up the endangerment finding and reframe the social cost of carbon calculations or it may turn out to increase public support for federal greenhouse gas regulations,” Pyle said. “We will have to see how it turns out.”

Joseph Majkut, climate science director at the libertarian Niskanen Center, said he believes a red team debate could sharpen assumptions and challenge observations that the scientific community might take for granted. And since the scientific body of evidence will show humans are indeed driving emissions that warm the planet, those who expect a red team to upend the climate science debate are engaging in a losing battle.

“What you can get is a careful reconsideration of previously held views because everyone buys into the process, and when you turn the crank, whatever comes out the other side is trustful,” Majkut said.

That is, of course, if Pruitt is interested in having an objective discussion.

“When Pruitt says he wants to ‘red team and blue team’ the climate science, that’s a great example of trying to shift the understanding of the science,” Jody Freeman, a White House official under President Obama who now teaches at Harvard Law School, said in a recent interview. “That’s very hard to come back from.”

Pruitt has taken steps to reshape some of the scientific input EPA receives, Cleetus noted. He’s exploring a different composition to the agency’s Science Advisory Board. He’s also solicited advice from the climate skeptic organization the Heartland Institute on whom to add to an eventual climate red team on climate science (Climatewire, Sept. 21).

That he’s tapped the Heartland Institute rather than, say, the National Academy of Sciences for the red team, blue team exercise is troubling, Cleetus said. It’s similar, she added, to the numerous meetings Pruitt has had with industry officials he regulates compared with almost no environmental groups, his history of suing EPA, and his questioning of whether humans and carbon dioxide are major contributors to climate change.

“So far, we haven’t heard anything that this is truly about scientific inquiry,” Cleetus said.