The Trump administration celebrated reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions even as it rolls back pollution curbs that could imperil that progress, drawing scorn from environmentalists.
Data released Wednesday from industrial facilities that showed total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell 2.7 percent between 2016 and 2017. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler gave credit to President Donald Trump’s “regulatory reform agenda.”
“While many around the world are talking about reducing greenhouse gases, the U.S. continues to deliver, and today’s report is further evidence of our action-oriented approach,” Wheeler said in a news release.
That didn’t sit well with environmentalists, who credited the shuttering of coal-fired power plants and regulations put in place by Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama.
“This is both political plagiarism and vandalism,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Trump’s EPA appointees are claiming credit for their predecessors’ work and trying to destroy it at the same time.”
Overall declines predate the presidency of Trump, who took office in January, 2017. Since 2011, when facilities first started sending data to the federal Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, emissions from non oil-sectors have declined by 15.1 percent. For seven years, that EPA program has collected annual emissions information from roughly 8,000 industrial facilities across 41 sectors of the economy.
The U.S., now the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China, led the world in reducing emissions last year, according to the International Energy Agency. It marked the third consecutive annual reduction for the U.S., which the energy agency attributed to utilities switching from coal to gas, dropping demand for electricity and climbing renewable power.
The EPA said power plant emissions in 2017 were down 4.5 percent compared with 2016 and 19.7 percent from 2011. That reduction reflects a broader transformation in the power sector, as utilities increasingly shut down coal plants and switch to natural gas, which produces about half as many greenhouse gas emissions when burned to generate electricity.
Wheeler stressed that federal regulations aren’t the main force behind the lower greenhouse gas levels.
“These achievements flow largely from technological breakthroughs in the private sector, not the heavy hand of government,” Wheeler said. “The Trump administration has proven that federal regulations are not necessary to drive CO2 reductions.”
According to Bloomberg NEF’s U.S. Power Plant Stack Dashboard, about 3 percent — or 6,900 megawatts — of coal generation capacity were retired in the U.S. in 2017.
“It’s ridiculous and insulting that the very person currently shredding the Obama-era policies responsible for the greenhouse gas reductions is now trying to hoodwink the American people into believing his anti-environmental policies are responsible for the reductions,” said Liz Perera, director of climate policy for the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club is fighting coal plants nationwide in part with donations from Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.
The new data come on the heels of a dire report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that countries must take “unprecedented” action over the next 12 years to keep global warming in check and prevent a cascade of catastrophic consequences, from devastating droughts and savage storms to rising seas. Global commitments to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions fall short of what the IPCC said is needed: cutting them more than 50 percent by 2030 and then to zero by 2050.
Market trends may continue to propel some carbon dioxide drops, but Trump also has vowed to revive coal — a promise that, if fulfilled, could reverse some of the greenhouse gas reductions tied to the closure of power plants burning the fossil fuel.
Environmentalists argue the reductions are coming in spite of Trump’s deregulatory agenda — not because of it. And some of the emission reductions have been compelled by federal regulations the administration is now rolling back or relaxing, potentially imperiling the success.
For instance, the EPA has proposed easing requirements for oil companies to detect and repair leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane at their facilities. It also has proposed scaling back Obama-era limits on greenhouse gases from power plants and freezing U.S. fuel-economy and tailpipe emissions requirements at the 2020 level of 37 miles per gallon.
The decline in power sector emissions largely comes from influences beyond federal policy, since Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from electrical generation was challenged in court and never actually went into effect. Kevin Kennedy, deputy director of the U.S. Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, cited the natural gas boom and more affordable renewables.
“Those trends have actually been largely sufficient to keep the U.S. on track to meeting the goals that had been set under the Clean Power Plan. So there’s been a lot of good technology progress in a lot of ways that has been driving those emissions down.’’
Trump last year pledged to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris climate accord, arguing that living up to the pact’s carbon-cutting commitments would punish America.
He has long questioned climate change, once declaring that the entire “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Although Trump subsequently said he was just joking, he repeatedly called global warming an “expensive hoax” and frequently invoked winter snowstorms to question its existence.
Trump disavowed the “hoax” allegation in an interview that aired on “60 Minutes” on Sunday. “I don’t think it’s a hoax. I think there’s probably a difference, but I don’t know that it’s man-made,” Trump said. “I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back.”