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What Would A 2nd Trump Term Mean For The Environment?

NOEL KING, HOST:

During his first term, President Trump rolled back environmental regulations and claimed that he was going to bring back the fossil fuel industry. But he did not find that easy. We're going to take a look at what has changed and what might change if Trump wins a second term with NPR energy reporter Jeff Brady and environment reporter Nate Rott. Hey, you guys.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hey.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey there.

KING: Jeff, I want to start with fossil fuels because President Trump talked so much about coal and oil and gas and how he planned to help those industries while he was in office. Did he do that?

BRADY: Well, he did reverse plans to block construction of big oil pipelines - the Keystone XL, the Dakota access. And he expanded the federal areas open to drilling. And oil and gas production has continued to increase. But that trend started during the Obama years, when fracking was on the rise and export restrictions were lifted. Coal, though, has continued its long decline despite Donald Trump's many promises in 2016 that he'd bring back coal mining jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And for those miners, get ready because you're going to be working your asses off, all right?

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you.

BRADY: Well, coal miners are not working more today. Mary Anne Hitt is with the Sierra Club, which tracks coal plant closings.

MARY ANNE HITT: We just reached a big milestone in this country. Sixty percent of the coal-fired power plants are now retired or announced retired. And that has continued under the Trump administration.

BRADY: There have been many times in the past four years where the president tried to save even individual coal power plants and failed, never mind the entire industry. Coal companies continue to declare bankruptcy.

KING: What about renewable energy, which many people see as the future - solar and wind? How did those industries do under President Trump over the past four years?

BRADY: Pretty well, actually. Solar and wind continue to grow. Last year, renewable energy produced about 17% of the country's electricity. And that's despite the president occasionally mocking wind turbines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And they say the noise causes cancer. You tell me that one, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: (Mimicking wind turbine) You know, the thing makes - it's so - and, of course, it's like a graveyard for birds.

(LAUGHTER)

BRADY: Maybe Trump is a little defensive about this because policies to boost renewables and make them cheaper during the Obama presidency have cast a long shadow over the president's effort to help fossil fuels. The Obama incentives prompted a lot of wind and solar construction. And once those facilities are built, the fuel is free. And coal power plants just can't compete against that.

KING: Now, Nate, over the past four years, the Trump administration has also tried to weaken or to roll back dozens of environmental regulations. What's broadly been the impact of this administration on climate change regulation?

ROTT: Yeah. So - I mean, they've tried to roll back regulations on everything from toxic chemicals and tailpipe emissions from cars to protections for migratory birds and waterways, which not only does have climate repercussions, but it could harm biodiversity and public health. So now, you know, the big question becomes whether these rollbacks actually stick. They're being challenged in court by states and advocacy groups. Many of these rollbacks have already been struck down and are being appealed, which is why, you know, from an environment and climate perspective, this fight over the new vacancy on the Supreme Court is so important, because it's very likely that some of the Trump rollbacks are going to end up there.

KING: So four years later, where does the U.S. stand when it comes to this larger goal of trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

ROTT: It's mixed. Nationally, carbon emissions are going down largely because of the decline in coal-fired power plants that Jeff had talked about. That is likely to continue. And it's not just because of the market forces, but because of a growing number of states that are making their own regulations on energy.

Business giants like Microsoft, Walmart, Amazon, they're making clean energy commitments - utilities are doing the same, you know, and stepping back, so are many other countries. China just announced that it plans to be carbon neutral by 2060. So even with all of that, the current pace is too slow. Emissions need to be cut right now to avoid the type of catastrophic warming scenarios that climate scientists have been warning us about for decades. And that gets a lot easier with federal action.

BRADY: Yeah. In the next few years, they're going to set the stage for the country's future greenhouse gas emissions. There are a lot of fossil fuel projects with uncertain futures right now - the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, coal export terminals, natural gas export facilities. If these projects get approved, they'd lock the country into decades of additional emissions that'll make it even harder to address the changing climate.

KING: Well, if Joe Biden wins the election, are there some of these environmental regulations that he could change back? Could he reverse President Trump's rollbacks?

ROTT: Absolutely. I mean, he could flex his executive authority to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the same way that Trump has flexed his to try to loosen regulations. I mean, he could do the same with water, endangered species protections. But that should also serve as a bit of a warning here. You know, as we said, most of Trump's policy changes are hung up in court. Most of Obama's climate policies were hung up in courts. So if the country is going to develop an effective and enduring climate policy, it's going to require congressional action specifically aimed at that problem.

KING: As with so many other things. Let me ask you lastly - the GOP does not have an official policy platform. It said it's sticking with its platform from 2016. So let's say President Trump wins. What do we expect on climate and energy in a second Trump term?

BRADY: Well, as you might guess, fossil fuel industries, they have wish lists. I talked with Tom Pyle. He's president of the American Energy Alliance. And he has close ties to the Trump administration. He wants to overhaul federal offshore oil drilling. Pyle doesn't like drilling bans such as the ones off the west coast of Florida.

THOMAS PYLE: There's too much politics involved in that process. And we should be leasing areas where it makes economic sense to do so. And we shouldn't have these blanket bans.

BRADY: In a second Trump term, Pyle also would like to end special tax benefits for solar and wind. And he wants to relitigate something called the endangerment finding. That was a really key 2007 Supreme Court decision that allows the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act. Overall, he says, markets, and not the government, should regulate energy.

KING: Jeff Brady and Nathan Rott. We're going to talk to you guys again soon about Joe Biden's plans to deal with climate change. But in the meantime, thanks so much for being with us and for bringing your reporting.

ROTT: Thank you.

BRADY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "ALL IN HERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.