By blocking these common sense standards, the administration is reversing progress in cleaning the air we breathe and fighting climate change
On Thursday, President Trump made international headlines by announcing his intent to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement—a landmark decision that was met with outrage and dismay from climate activists and environmentalists. But while the gesture carries great symbolic significance, signaling the president’s disinterest in international climate efforts, any hope of actually achieving our domestic climate goals pledged under the agreement had already long since vanished.
Since January, the Trump administration has taken swift steps to dismantle numerous climate and environmental priorities established under the Obama administration, including the repeal of multiple environmental regulations. And environmentalists are fighting back—by way of the courts, that is. Just about every environment-related action the Trump administration has taken has been met with a legal challenge.
Trump is no stranger to litigation—reports suggest he was sued thousands of times as part of his career in real estate before ever becoming president. But since assuming office, he’s also been met with record-setting numbers of legal challenges. In his first two weeks as president alone, his administration was sued more than 50 times, mostly over the travel ban he implemented shortly after his inauguration. By March, reports suggest the number of lawsuits had risen above 100.
A major reason for the high rate of litigation has to do with the president’s generous use of executive orders, often in ways that environmental and social groups feel oversteps his authority, according to Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. The travel ban is perhaps the most high-profile example of these.
“Executive orders tend to be directives from the president to administrative agencies to carry out internal tasks,” he said. “On occasion, they’re used to set broader policy agendas. But what we’ve seen with Trump is an attempt to really use the executive order to create whole new policies. And some of the policies that these executive orders are seeking to create are at direct odds with the statutes that provide the executive branch with its authority to take any action at all.”
To date, several dozen of the lawsuits currently filed against the Trump administration are directly related to climate and environmental issues. A number of them, although certainly not all, are related to executive orders.
In regard to Paris, White House advisers had actually cited potential lawsuits as an extra reason the president should withdraw from the treaty. Prior to Thursday’s announcement, they’d suggested that if the U.S. remained in the treaty while failing to enforce greenhouse gas-reducing regulations—namely, the Clean Power Plan, which the Trump administration has been actively working to unravel—environmental groups could pin new lawsuits advocating for climate regulations on the commitments laid out in the Paris agreement.
But as The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips recently pointed out, Trump’s getting sued for his environmental policies either way. He’s already facing a handful of cases over major policy points—and now that the Paris announcement has dashed hopes that the administration will make climate action a U.S. priority, more may be coming in the future.
We’ve put together some of the major examples of recent federal actions and the lawsuits they’ve inspired so far.
What we’ve seen with Trump is an attempt to really use the executive order to create whole new policies
The promised border wall
A cornerstone of President Trump’s campaign, from its earliest days, was the promise of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And a January executive order on the topic of immigration sealed his intent, calling for the immediate construction of a wall along the Mexican border.
The idea has been met with resistance from a wide array of social communities and organizations, but it’s also been challenged by environmentalists concerned about its effect on the natural landscape. In April, conservation group Center for Biological Diversity and Arizona Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration that would block the project’s construction, claiming that the government failed to adequately assess the wall’s potential environmental impact. The plaintiffs express concern that the wall could have a negative impact on water systems and native species, particularly endangered ones like jaguars.
The revival of the coal industry
Another key Trump campaign promise involved the reinvigoration of the declining coal industry. And in March, the Trump administration took a step in that direction by lifting an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on public lands. This directive was also issued in an executive order.
Almost immediately, the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana, along with a group of environmental organizations, sued the Trump administration for lifting the ban without completing an environmental review of the coal-leasing program. The plaintiffs suggest that the government should have first evaluated the program’s “significant environmental, health, and economic impacts—including impacts from climate disruption caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, and socioeconomic and environmental impacts to local communities.”
Another chance for Keystone XL
Among the most controversial environmental issues that arose during the Obama administration was that of the Keystone XL pipeline. This proposal called for a new pipeline branch between Alberta and Nebraska, running through parts of Montana and South Dakota in the process. The idea was met with fierce protests from Native American, social justice and environmental groups, and it was ultimately rejected by President Obama.
But in January, Trump signed an executive order aimed at advancing the project, and in March the administration officially approved the pipeline’s construction. In response, multiple environmental organizations sued the administration, arguing that the approval of the project relied on an outdated environmental assessment and ignored new information about the pipeline’s potential impact. A separate lawsuit was also filed by conservationists and representatives of indigenous groups.
Tough breaks for wildlife
In yet another reversal of an Obama-era rule, Congress voted in February to undo a regulation aimed at protecting certain Alaskan wildlife from predator control operations on public lands, prohibiting the shooting of denning mother bears and wolves as well as certain types of trapping and aerial hunting. President Trump signed the reversal into effect.
In April, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the strategy Congress used to repeal the regulation—a little-known law that allows Congress to overturn federal regulations within a limited amount of time after they’re finalized. The case challenges an aspect of this law that stipulates that after a rule has been repealed in this manner, no substantially similar regulation may be enacted again without congressional approval. The case argues that “this constraint on future rulemaking violates the separation of powers that must be maintained between the legislative and executive branches under the U.S. Constitution.”
At the time it was filed, Reuters reported that the lawsuit—the first of its kind to make such a challenge—stood little likelihood of success.
The expansion of offshore drilling
Last month, President Trump signed an executive order that could expand offshore oil and gas drilling, directing Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review an Obama ban on drilling in certain parts of the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. In May, a group of environmental groups responded with a lawsuitchallenging the president’s authority to make such a move.
The plaintiffs point out that President Obama initiated the ban in the first place under a law called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which provides guidelines for oil and gas development leasing. They argue that this act allows presidents to withdraw certain areas from consideration for leasing—but that “neither OCSLA nor any other provision of law authorizes Presidents to undo such withdrawals.”
Attacks on energy efficiency programs
It’s not just environmental groups that are pushing back against the Trump administration’s environmental policies—states are jumping on the bandwagon now as well.
In January, the White House directed federal agencies to place new or pending regulations on hold until they could be reviewed by incoming Trump administration agency heads. Among the regulations delayed as a result were a series of energy efficiency appliance standards introduced by the Obama administration. Energy efficiency standards are widely regarded by environmentalists as an important way to cut down on the energy consumption of individual households, businesses and other buildings, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process.
As a result, in April a coalition of state attorneys general filed a notice of intent with the Department of Energy to sue within 60 days. The states were joined in their protest by the city of New York and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
In a statement at the time, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman decried the delays as harmful to both public health and the environment. “By blocking these common sense standards, the administration is reversing progress in cleaning the air we breathe and fighting climate change – and denying consumers and businesses some $24 billion in savings,” he said.