WASHINGTON – Donald Trump is preparing a novel campaign strategy for a president who’s pulling the U.S. from the international Paris accord on climate change, cheerleading for coal, one of the dirtiest source of power, and suggesting that wind turbines cause cancer.
He’s going to tout his environmental credentials.
Administration officials are developing talking points on climate change and cultivating a list of environmental “success stories,” from cleaner air to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, said a person familiar with the plans who asked not to be named describing internal deliberations.
“President Trump believes you can grow the economy and protect the environment,” said Judd Deere, a deputy White House press secretary.
In attempting to demonstrate that the U.S. is getting greener while still rolling back what Trump sees as job-killing constraints on industry, a key cheerleader may be Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Today we have the cleanest air on record, and we are ranked No. 1 in the world for access to clean drinking water,” Wheeler said at the Washington Auto Show on April 4. “As we continue to reduce pollution, we’re also reducing burdensome regulations.”
And Mandy Gunasekara, a former Trump EPA policy adviser, said that “if you look at the facts on the ground, President Trump has been one of the most successful presidents in advancing a pro-growth and pro-environment agenda.”
Still, plans to cherry-pick examples of Trump’s “green” accomplishments to take to voters already has environmental activists crying foul.
“They’re whitewashing their sooty record,” said David Doniger, a senior adviser to the NRDC Action Fund, an affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They’re taking credit for the law and the actions of their predecessors that they’re actively trying to roll back.”
The strategy ignores Trump’s zeal to ease environmental regulations he says are hampering U.S. growth. But it’s also is a tacit recognition of the political reality confronting the president as he seeks re-election: many of the swing voters Trump needs to win a second term in the White House also prize environmental progress.
“For the president to win these battleground states, he’s going to have to have some record of environmental achievement to showcase,” said David Banks, who previously advised Trump on the issues. “The environment and environmental issues can make or break you.”
Environmental activists say the administration cynically plans to take credit for achievements driven by policies put in place by his predecessors — including regulations his agencies are now attempting to undermine or overturn.
Within months of taking office, Trump tasked the EPA with redoing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that aimed to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants, and directed the Interior Department to resume selling coal on federal land, ending a moratorium imposed by former President Barack Obama. The agency is also easing Obama-era limits on methane from oil wells and standards throttling greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.
But supporters say Trump has environmental achievements to celebrate too.
“Deregulation does not always mean rolling back rules,” said Wheeler. By modernizing, simplifying or streamlining regulations, the administration is creating “greater certainty” and empowering the public “to innovate and create cleaner and safer technologies,”
Wheeler noted that from 1970 to 2017, conventional air pollution in the U.S. fell 73 percent, even as the economy grew more than 260 percent, Americans traveled more miles, and the U.S. used more energy.
The Trump administration can also point to expanding use of natural gas, both domestically and exported overseas, where it can displace more carbon-intense energy sources. “That is a pretty substantial story that they can tell, not only about our decarbonizing in the U.S. power sector, but also globally, sharing those technologies around the world,” said Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath Action, a group seeking to accelerate clean energy innovation.
Polling shows voters increasingly care about the environment, making the sales job even more important. Highlighting some wins could be enough to offset the harshest criticism of its policies.
If Republicans want to win back the House in 2020 or 2022, “we’re going to have to find ways to appeal to all those suburban voters who turned the other way” in 2018, Powell said. Polling indicates the environment is a way to appeal to them, he said.
A survey conducted by Pew earlier this year found that 63 percent of U.S. adults say stricter environmental regulations are “worth the cost,” up from 59 percent two years ago. Among Republicans, the number who took a positive view of stricter environmental laws jumped to 45 percent in the latest poll from 36 percent in 2017.
Trump’s pending “green” strategy is different from the way administration officials describe their environmental agenda to Republicans and outside business groups. Wheeler has boasted about rollbacks of environmental regulations when testifying on Capitol Hill; in hearings last week he described to lawmakers 38 deregulatory actions set to save $3 billion. By contrast, the campaign talking points now being assembled ignore that track record and focus instead on environmental achievements.
Among the policies Trump could highlight:
A decline in greenhouse gas emissions during Trump’s first year in office. Emissions are lower than in 2005, a baseline year widely used to measure progress. However, they rose some 3.4 percent in 2018 as the U.S. economy grew, posting the biggest jump in eight years, according to estimates from Rhodium Group analysts in January expected to be confirmed by government data. Administration officials may say greenhouse gas emissions are dropping, Doniger said, “but they’re not dropping any more — and this administration is doing everything it can to push them up.”
A planned replacement for the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that the EPA says will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electricity by between 13 and 30 million short tons in 2025. But because it’s designed around efficiency improvements at individual power plants, the Trump administration’s proposal is weaker than the regulation it’s designed to replace.
Finishing a review of air quality limits for ozone and tiny pollutants by a December 2020 deadline. That would be unusual, as the EPA has rarely satisfied congressional deadlines to review the limits every five years. But in its zeal to meet the deadline, Trump’s EPA halted a formal review by subcommittees of scientific advisers with deep air quality expertise — a process former members say is essential to drive sound requirements. It’s a “manic insistence” on meeting the schedule at the expense of strong standards for smog and soot, said John Walke, a senior adviser to the NRDC Action Fund.
Environmentalists say Trump’s expected pitch to voters is undermined by what’s really happening on the ground.
“The Trump administration’s discussion of air pollution and climate pollution both suffer from two realities,” Walke said. “First, the administration has nothing to do with decreasing emissions, and second, their rollback agenda is increasing dangerous air pollution and climate pollution. Once that’s established, all the rhetoric just collapses.”
That misses the big picture, said Gunasekara, who left her EPA post in February to tout the administration’s energy and environmental wins as the 2020 election approaches. Even as the administration revises regulations it regards as overreach by Obama, Trump supports the overall goal of maintaining clean air and water, she said.
“Deregulation does not mean setting aside fulfillment of important agency missions,” said Gunasekara.
Trump already talks about the environment in rallies and on Twitter, frequently boasting that the U.S. has the “cleanest” air and water on the planet. “There’s nobody cleaner than us, and it’s getting better and better,” he said during a rally in West Virginia in August. In October, Trump tweeted that the U.S. has the “Cleanest Air in the World- BY FAR!”
At a rally in Michigan in March, Trump touted his support for the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water on Earth. He vowed to make sure a federal restoration program would get full funding, even though he asked Congress just weeks earlier to slash the EPA’s Great Lakes Program by 90 percent.
“I support the Great Lakes. Always have,” Trump said. “They’re beautiful. They’re big. Very deep. Record deepness, right?”