George W. Bush’s presidency was a worst-case scenario for environmentalists. Then came Trump.
Despite the president’s sweeping rollback of environmental protection, climate activists still see hope at the local level.
The president lost the popular vote in the general election. He faced massive protests at his inauguration and ruled over a divided nation after assuming the presidency. He met secretly with industry executives and quickly passed an executive order that angered environmentalists and transparency activists. His disapproval rating was the highest of any modern president.
And thus began George W. Bush’s presidency.
Fast-forward 16 years, and that could just as easily tell the story of President Donald Trump’s first three months in office. In fact, Trump has now surpassed Bush in disapproval ratings due in part to his brazen attempts to gut environmental policies and govern with an even greater reliance on secret meetings with corporate executives.
But the country is different than it was 16 years ago, giving some hope to those who advocate for environmental protection and action on climate change. Since the early days of the Bush administration, much has changed at the local and state levels where communities have implemented clean energy policies that could withstand attacks from Trump on several fronts.
With perhaps the exception of George H.W. Bush, Republican presidents over the past 35 years have consistently sought to weaken the government’s ability to protect the environment. Former President Ronald Reagan was notoriously anti-environment and raised eyebrows when he famously stated “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” But neither Reagan nor George W. Bush pursued an assault on the environment on the magnitude that the nation is seeing under Trump, said Daphne Wysham, head of the climate justice program at the Center for Sustainable Economy.
“People are so overwhelmed by the entire administration, from climate denial at the EPA to proposed cuts at the Energy Department. The cuts in the EPA budget, if they are actually carried through, would be devastating to everything, not just the climate agenda,” she said.
When Bush issued an executive order less than two weeks into his administration in 2001 to create an energy task force to recommend fossil fuel-friendly policies, local and state officials were still in the early stages of imagining, let alone creating, a clean energy economy.
But today, as the federal government once again takes a hostile stance on environmental and climate issues, many people can look to their local and state officials for help. “That’s where the real power lies in the resistance and that’s where we’re seeing some success stories,” Wysham said.
Nonetheless, Trump’s decision to follow through on many of his campaign promises, including adopting a steamroller approach to gutting the federal government’s environmental rules and climate initiatives, has seemingly allowed him to achieve the impossible: he has surpassed the much-maligned Bush in negative ratings and caused a huge number of Americans to fear what may come next.
“It’s conceivable that this administration, unless Trump does an about-face, will pursue energy policy worse than anything Bush did,” said Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a Maryland-based environmental group.
“It’s conceivable that this administration… will pursue energy policy worse than anything Bush did.”
The Bush administration would try to cover up its fossil fuel favoritism by saying a few nice things about clean energy. “If you look at Bush’s rhetoric on clean energy, he was all over it. But his actions were much the opposite of that,” said Debbie Sease, senior director of lobbying and advocacy for the Sierra Club. “I don’t think we even see rhetorically Trump being very embarrassed about his enthusiasm for fossil fuels.”
What Trump is doing from an energy and environmental standpoint is worse than what Bush did in his first months in office, according to Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. “Trump wants to centralize control of the agencies. Just because you’re a cabinet secretary doesn’t mean you have unilateral control of that agency” under Trump’s doctrine, he said.
Public Citizen released a report this week that describes how corporate executives have “swamped” Trump’s White House to an “astonishing degree.” Trump has met with at least 190 corporate executives, averaging more than two a day, since his January 20 inauguration. Counting repeat attendees, he has had at least 222 corporate executive meetings — and these numbers don’t include Trump’s reported frequent telephone conversations with other CEOs, according to the report.
Trump’s inaugural committee raised $7 million from energy donors, about 6.6 percent of the inauguration’s $106 million haul, according to The Hill. Among the donations, Chevron contributed $525,000, along with $500,000 each from Exxon Mobil, BP, and Citgo. Murray Energy, a privately owned coal producer headed by Trump supporter Robert Murray, donated $300,000 to the committee.
On March 28, Trump issued a sweeping executive order that instructed his cabinet to start eliminating a wide array of Obama-era policies on global warming, including emissions rules for power plants, limits on methane leaks, a moratorium on federal coal leasing, and the use of the social cost of carbon to guide government actions.
Kert Davies, executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, views Trump’s energy policy approach as a haphazard mess. “It’s an order of magnitude less thoughtful than even the Bush energy strategy, which we attacked and decried as not environmentally sound,” said Davies, who was working at Greenpeace in 2001. “Now, with Trump, we’re just off the rails.”
“Now, with Trump, we’re just off the rails.”
Bush created the National Energy Policy Development Group, more commonly known as the Cheney Energy Task Force, to work with energy industry executives “to develop a national energy policy.” Vice President Dick Cheney was named chairman of the task force, with Bush cabinet secretaries serving as members of the panel.
The task force gave energy executives an opportunity to present the panel with a wish list of energy policy changes. Toward the tail end of the task force’s work, after its efforts had attracted a lot of bad press, Cheney and his aides decided to invite officials from the environmental community to offer input. But observers viewed the invitation as simply paying lip service to environmental issues.
One of the concrete outcomes of the energy task force was the inclusion of the so-called Halliburton Loophole in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. As recommended by the Cheney panel, the 2005 bill included the loophole, which exempted hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Cheney Energy Task Force was designed to evade transparency, according to Slocum. Cheney — who served as CEO of oil field services corporate giant Halliburton prior to being named Bush’s running mate in the summer of 2000 — and his staff who worked on the task force were not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. However, communication among cabinet secretaries and their staff related to the task force was subject to FOIA.
Based on the cabinet secretaries’ communication, it was confirmed that the task force met almost exclusively with energy executives and their lobbyists. Even today, information is trickling out about the energy task force. “We’re still finding out what was hidden from the American public under the Cheney energy plan,” Wysham said.
Bush also faced significant criticism from environmentalists and the general public for opposing the Kyoto Protocol early in his presidency. The protocol was an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. The Clinton administration signed the treaty, but it was never submitted to the Senate for ratification.
“We’re still finding out what was hidden from the American public under the Cheney energy plan.”
The tension reportedly occurring in the Trump administration today between factions aligned with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson versus top adviser Steve Bannon over whether to stay in the Paris climate accord is similar to a debate that occurred in 2001. Then-EPA head Christie Todd Whitman, who favored staying in the Kyoto protocol, was at odds with Dick Cheney, who wanted the United States to leave the climate treaty, noted Davies.
Toward the later years of his presidency, Barack Obama sought to reverse some of the industry-friendly initiatives that emerged from the Cheney task force. In 2015, the Obama administration, in an effort to protect groundwater, required natural gas drillers to disclose the chemicals they use when conducting hydraulic fracturing on more than 750 million acres of federal and tribal lands. This rule could be headed for the scrap heap, though, as part of the Trump administration’s goal of reversing many Obama rules.
The Trump White House “has no shame of being 100 percent for the fossil fuel and polluting industries,” said Wenonah Hauter, founder and executive director of environmental group Food & Water Watch. “The Bush administration at least gave lip service to environmental regulations.”
The ongoing dramatic shift in energy and environmental policies couldn’t come at a worse time, said Sierra Club’s Debbie Sease. The “incredibly scary impact” of Trump is that Obama set in place a series of administrative actions that put the nation on a path toward reducing carbon and increasing the amount of energy produced by clean sources, she said. Now, “Trump is doing pretty much everything he can to undo those things.”
Other environmentalists view Trump’s ascendancy as not as destructive as it could be. Clean energy policies adopted by states over the past 15 years could serve as a bulwark against Trump’s anti-environment agenda, said Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s Mike Tidwell. During Bush’s first term as president, states had barely gotten their own clean energy policies together, he recalled.
Maryland and many other states had renewable portfolio standards of zero in the early 2000s. Today, Maryland has an RPS that will increase to 25 percent by 2020. New York State has a clean energy standard that will require 50 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable energy sources like wind and solar by 2030. Hawaii has passed laws directing the state’s utilities to generate 100 percent of their electricity sales from renewable energy resources by 2045.
Compared to Bush’s early days as president, states “are in a different galaxy in terms of their own clean energy policies,” Tidwell said. “So on balance, we’re still moving in the right direction as a country today despite Trump.”
“The clean energy revolution would go faster without Trump. But it’s not going to stop with him.”
Tidwell believes states aren’t going to roll over to Trump’s anti-clean energy agenda. “With what Trump is trying to do at the national level, states are going to shift into an even higher gear than they would otherwise,” he said. “The clean energy revolution would go faster without Trump. But it’s not going to stop with him. It’s going to keep going forward.”
At this time, Washington holds few opportunities for environmental and clean energy victories, according to the Center for a Sustainable Economy’s Daphne Wysham. “That’s one reason why so many of us are going to be focused on the local and state level. That’s where the real power lies in the resistance and that’s where we’re seeing some success stories,” she said.
States and cities are adopting green energy policies at a rapid pace, a trend that is expected to gain momentum with Trump as president. Portland, Oregon, near the Center for Sustainable Economy’s headquarters, passed a law in 2016 banning new fossil fuel infrastructure from being constructed within city limits.
“We’ve got other jurisdictions across North America who want to do the same thing,” Wysham said. “The cumulative effect of all of these local jurisdictions that are ambitious like this is to send very clear market signals that you invest in fossil fuel infrastructure at your own risk.”
Wysham sees what’s happening in Washington under Trump “as the last dying gasp of the most powerful industry on the planet and they are pulling out all the stops because they’ve seen the writing on the wall.”