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What a Trump win might mean for Texas’ environment

November 14, 2016

San Antonio Express-News
By Brendan Gibbons
Original article here

Depending on one’s point of view, Donald Trump’s election as president can be seen as either a chance to pull back on federal regulatory overreach or to undo any recent progress made on the environment.

Experts on both sides say climate change, energy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s relationship with the states, endangered species and land use are some of the most important environmental issues that Trump’s leadership will alter. That could be especially true in Texas.

Still, nobody knows exactly what Trump will do. Compared with immigration and health care, the environment received little attention from either side in the presidential campaign. Trump also has made conflicting statements about his plans for the EPA.

Trump’s pick of transition advisers and possible future Cabinet members offers some clues. He appointed two climate change skeptics: Myron Ebell to head his EPA transition team and a North Dakota Republican congressman, Kevin Cramer, as an energy adviser. Trump is reportedly considering oil executive Forrest Lucas for interior secretary, which would put him in control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and other federal agencies with vast land holdings. Other potential picks include Oklahoma oil tycoon Harold Hamm for energy secretary.

As for Trump’s policies, environmentalists and business and energy advocates in Texas and elsewhere are looking to his transition website, along with his Twitter account and a few public statements, for clues.

Climate and Energy

Most everyone agrees that the Obama administration’s policies to address climate change, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, are doomed. Trump has vowed to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement and “scrap” the Clean Power Plan, the first-ever attempt to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, the highest-emitting sector in the U.S.

That’s good news for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton’s office joined 24 states in a lawsuit challenging the plan, and the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay in February.

Texas generates more electricity and produces more greenhouse gas emissions from power plants than any other state and is the only one to operate its own electrical grid. Texas also ranks No. 1 in wind power and No. 10 in solar.

The Clean Power Plan would have required Texas to cut its emissions to 33 percent of 2012 levels by 2030 but would have allowed the state to decide for itself how to do so. As of July, Texas generated 51 percent of its electricity from natural gas, 29 percent from coal, 12 percent from renewable sources and 8 percent from nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. If that mix changes, federal mandates will not be the cause.

Texas’ challenge to the Clean Power Plan will still be underway when Trump takes office, and his administration has several options to change the rules or settle with Texas and the other states, said Scott Segal, head of the policy group at Bracewell, an international law firm that advises San Antonio-based oil refiners Valero Energy and Tesoro.

Besides the Clean Power Plan, Texas has seven other pending lawsuits against the federal government over air regulations covering oil field methane emissions, particulates, sulfur dioxide and more. For Texas’ top Republican officeholders, including Abbott, that litigation has been key to keeping the Obama administration in check.

“For the first time since 2008, we won’t have a White House that we have to constantly sue to protect the rights of Texans,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement after Trump’s election.

Under Trump, the EPA will “settle in Texas’ favor if they can,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, who for five years served as director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement. “I’m hoping they don’t do that every single time on every single issue. That would be foolish if they did because obviously they’ll be setting up for a backlash.”

Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, also has little hope for Obama’s fossil-fuel regulations but did not think it would spell the end for renewable energy sources. “The thing is, the momentum for clean energy, for wind and solar, is very strong already,” she said.

Trade groups that represent Texas power producers offered little insight into their thinking about Trump’s administration. The Association of Electric Companies of Texas, which represents generators dominated both by renewable sources and fossil fuels, declined to comment.

Lindsey Hughes, director of Texas Competitive Power Advocates, said in an email that the group will support “a market that brings investment in clean and diversified energy resources to provide ample, reliable and affordable electricity choices for Texas consumers.” She did not mention Trump.

EPA Enforcement

Trump’s team mentions the EPA briefly on its transition website, saying it “will refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans.”

It included one specific measure: The president-elect said he would “eliminate” the “highly invasive” Waters of the U.S. rule. That’s shorthand for a rule that said that the Clean Water Act applies to wetlands and ephemeral streams that are headwaters for larger tributaries and rivers. The EPA framed it as clarifying the law, while opponents considered it an overreach.

Schaeffer, whose group often sues the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality over the issue of weak enforcement of environmental laws, thinks Obama’s EPA was already fairly soft on the TCEQ. Texans should now expect even less from the EPA and must take matters into their own hands, he said.

“If you’re living downwind or downriver from polluters, you’re less able to depend on some kind of backstop from EPA,” he said. “You’re going to need to start taking your own agency on and holding them accountable.”

There may be one place for common ground. Trump has proposed a $550 billion investment in the country’s infrastructure, though he has not explained how it would be funded. That could include some money to upgrade the nation’s drinking water systems.

Endangered Species

Trump and his advisers have said next to nothing about endangered species, except for one reference on the transition site to protecting habitat. This is an environmental fight that often plays out in Texas. Recent battles have been waged over the lesser prairie chicken, the dunes sagebrush lizard and the golden-cheeked warbler, whose habitats often overlap with land coveted by oil and gas companies or developers.

With Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, Robert Henneke, general counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank, said he was hopeful for what he said is a needed reform of the Endangered Species Act. His group joined a petition last year to take the golden-cheeked warbler off the endangered species list.

“The purpose of the Endangered Species Act needs to be restored to protecting endangered and threatened species and not land control and encumbrance of private property,” he said, adding that the federal government should still have a role for migratory species that cross state boundaries.

The day after the election, Center for Biological Diversity Director Kierán Suckling called Trump’s win a “disaster.” The environmental group has fought for protection of several Texas species, including the dunes sagebrush lizard, a species of mussel native to the Rio Grande, endangered salamanders and the warbler.

“Trump’s vision is dark. Dangerous,” Suckling said in the statement, adding that his organization will “regroup, re-energize and carry on the good fight to save life on Earth.”

Use of Federal Land

One issue that has environmentalists reeling may be less of a concern in Texas: opening up federal lands for energy development. Unlike most of the West, Texas has few federal lands outside of Big Bend National Park, some U.S. Forest Service land in East Texas, North Texas and the Panhandle, and a smattering of wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast.

Trump’s transition page calls for “opening onshore and offshore (energy) leasing on federal lands and waters.” It vows to repeal a moratorium on federal coal mining leasing while “ensuring proper stewardship of our National Parks’ crown jewels.”

“To the extent that the limited federal lands in Texas would be productive economically,” Henneke said, “then they should be developed with the same types of environmental safeguards that have always existed.”

On the other side, Schneider said any extreme ideas such as privatizing national parks “will ignite a firestorm.”

With Republicans set to control the White House and Congress, perhaps environmentalists across the country can learn a thing or two from those working in Texas.

“We’ve been dealing with people in power in both houses of the Legislature, in the Governor’s Mansion, in the lieutenant governor’s chair and at the Texas Supreme Court,” Schneider said. “Very few of these people get elected on a pro-environment platform.”

She said groups such as hers succeed in this state by finding unlikely allies. Canvassing door to door has taught her that many Republicans and conservatives support certain conservation measures.

“We learned how to talk to people across the political spectrum,” she said. “Not that we always win by a long shot, but we have been very successful on a lot of fronts.”

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