Full Court Press

An image of a basketball court

Pres­i­dent Trump’s assault on our nation’s cli­mate, clean ener­gy and envi­ron­men­tal laws and val­ues is com­ing to an end. Time will tell how much per­ma­nent dam­age has been done. But we know an impor­tant fact now: Over the past four years, state attor­neys gen­er­al have suc­cess­ful­ly exe­cut­ed the legal equiv­a­lent of a full court press against the admin­is­tra­tion. They have ini­ti­at­ed hun­dreds of actions that have slowed down the onslaught and delayed or weak­ened dozens of roll­backs, even as they pur­sued an affir­ma­tive agen­da to advance their state inter­ests in cli­mate, clean ener­gy and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice.

The arc of the Trump administration’s roll­back efforts is now famil­iar. Ear­ly exec­u­tive orders instruct­ed polit­i­cal appointees at the EPA and the Inte­ri­or and Ener­gy Depart­ments to remove envi­ron­men­tal bar­ri­ers” that alleged­ly were hold­ing back domes­tic fos­sil fuel devel­op­ment. For the first two years of the admin­is­tra­tion, Trump’s lieu­tenants looked to advance ener­gy dom­i­nance” by short-cir­cuit­ing ongo­ing envi­ron­men­tal rule­mak­ings, delay­ing impend­ing com­pli­ance dead­lines, and ignor­ing statu­to­ry direc­tives.

State attor­neys gen­er­al, work­ing along­side envi­ron­men­tal groups, pub­lic health advo­cates, sci­en­tists, state reg­u­la­tors, activists and an engaged pub­lic, took the admin­is­tra­tion to court, win­ning a string of court deci­sions in 2017 and 2018 that inval­i­dat­ed many of the ini­tial slap­dash efforts to under­mine and reverse reg­u­la­to­ry pro­tec­tions for our air, water, pub­lic lands and wildlife, and expos­ing, along the way, the administration’s dis­re­gard for the rule of law.

After their ear­ly vic­to­ries, state attor­neys gen­er­al and their allies held their ground as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion tried to devel­op and then jus­ti­fy its changes in direc­tion. In its haste to make up for squan­dered time, how­ev­er, the admin­is­tra­tion repeat­ed many of the same errors — poor plan­ning, shod­dy legal argu­ments and fudged math — that had led to its first wave of court defeats.

Indeed, as we will chron­i­cle in a major report that we will release next week (enti­tled Full Court Press), the Trump administration’s mar­quee envi­ron­men­tal, cli­mate and ener­gy dereg­u­la­to­ry poli­cies have the shal­low­est of roots, and all are on thin legal ice. In the cli­mate are­na, for exam­ple, state attor­neys gen­er­al have exposed the face­tious safe­ty claims and high con­sumer costs and cli­mate pol­lu­tion con­se­quences of rolling back auto­mo­tive fuel econ­o­my stan­dards. Auto com­pa­nies know the final rule is legal­ly flawed, poor­ly rea­soned and unpop­u­lar, and most have com­mit­ted to fol­low California’s stricter rules. Like­wise, the EPA’s rule exempt­ing the oil and gas indus­try from any oblig­a­tion to con­trol methane emis­sions — a cli­mate-bust­ing super pol­lu­tant — emerged late (last August) and is, on its face, con­trary to both the let­ter and spir­it of the Clean Air Act. Lead­ing oil and gas com­pa­nies have pub­licly crit­i­cized it and state attor­neys gen­er­al have joined many oth­er groups in chal­leng­ing it in court.

With these and many oth­er late-break­ing roll­backs suf­fer­ing from flawed rea­son­ing and incom­plete admin­is­tra­tive records, com­pa­nies will rely on them at their own risk while the new admin­is­tra­tion and the courts work­ing with state attor­neys gen­er­al and oth­er pub­lic inter­est advo­cates clean up the mess. On many oth­er mat­ters, state AGs have had out­right wins. They suc­cess­ful­ly defend­ed states’ rights to adopt low car­bon fuel stan­dards; sub­si­dize zero-car­bon nuclear pow­er; estab­lish net meter­ing rules for dis­trib­uted ener­gy; and, in the case of Cal­i­for­nia, coor­di­nate its car­bon mar­ket with non‑U.S. juris­dic­tions. AGs have forced the Ener­gy Depart­ment to imple­ment ener­gy effi­cien­cy stan­dards; stopped coal bailouts; and helped strike down Kafkaesque” bar­ri­ers to aggriev­ed landown­ers’ access to courts. They per­suad­ed the Supreme Court to close a key loop­hole under the Clean Water Act; obtained court vic­to­ries that pro­tect down­wind states’ air qual­i­ty; and forced the EPA to back down from its COVID non-enforce­ment pol­i­cy. AGs beat back attempts to open the Atlantic Ocean to dam­ag­ing oil and gas seis­mic test­ing and drilling and won key court rul­ings uphold­ing pro­tec­tions for migra­to­ry birds and fed­er­al coal and oil and gas roy­al­ty reforms. They launched envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice ini­tia­tives and demon­strat­ed how envi­ron­men­tal roll­backs dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly hurt low­er-income com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or.

The list goes on. Wait for our upcom­ing Full Court Press report next week for more.