The coal-fired Plant Scherer, one of the nation's top carbon dioxide emitters, stands in the distance in Juliette, Ga., in June 2017. President Donald Trump pulled the United States from the landmark Paris climate agreement, striking a major blow to worldwide efforts to combat global warming and distancing the country from its closest allies abroad.

Trump quick to pursue deregulation in first year

But is the energy industry — or the environment — seeing results?

Wherever regulations curbed job growth, President Donald Trump said he would be the candidate to gut the rules.

"We're going to cancel every needless job-killing regulation and put a moratorium on new regulations until our economy gets back on its feet," Trump said at a campaign rally in Tampa.

Cutting back red tape was supposed to reinvigorate the fossil fuel industry, particularly coal, and has become a central tenet of Trump’s environmental policy. Harvard University found at least 40 rules the Trump administration has so far challenged.

We’ve been tracking Trump’s promises aimed at cutting back red tape. Those include his promise to enact a temporary ban on new regulations, as well as his vows to save the coal industry, scale back the EPA and cancel the Paris climate agreement.

Steady progress has been the overall pattern for Trump's promises related to the environment, energy and regulation.

We found that reviving coal is not a possibility as much as slowing its inevitable decline, and that deregulation is not as easy as it may initially have seemed.

Either way, Trump’s efforts are bound to leave an environmental footprint.


A miner runs equipment at a coal mine in Friedens, Pa., in 2017. Corsa Coal Corp. says the mine will create 70 to 100 new jobs and produce about 400,000 tons of metallurgical coal a year. President Donald Trump referred to the mine's opening during a speech announcing his intent to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.

Trump tries to revive coal market

When Trump campaigned in the states and counties that have been most affected by layoffs in coal mining, he said he would relieve the industry of Obama-era regulations.

"They want to be miners, but their jobs have been taken away," Trump said at an Aug. 10, 2016, rally in Abingdon, Va. "And we're going to bring them back, folks."

In 2017, Trump, along with congressional Republicans, revoked the Stream Protection Rule, which restricted certain coal mining activities near waterways. Trump also signed an executive order to begin the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration policy that sought to limit carbon emissions and placed strict regulations on coal-fired power plants.

Another part of that executive order lifted a temporary ban on new coal leasing on federal land. An estimated 40 percent of coal mined in the United States comes from federal land.

Because regulations can be costly to companies, the philosophy goes, removing those regulations could reinvigorate a struggling industry.

But market forces largely determine the industry’s fate.

“The primary driver of coal’s decline has been cheap natural gas, which resulted from the shale revolution,” said Jason Bordoff, a professor at Columbia University. “If natural gas prices stay at their current low level, our analysis shows that coal’s decline will continue whether you scrap environmental rules or not.”

A Columbia University study found that Obama-era environmental regulations drove a 3.5 percent decline of coal production from 2011 to 2016. Coal production overall had declined 33 percent over the same time, mostly due to competition from natural gas, lower-than-expected electricity demand and the collapse of the Asian coal market. A recent study requested by Energy Secretary Rick Perry and released by the Energy Department corroborated that finding.

Coal-mining jobs have been falling since the mid 1980s, even while U.S. coal production was at its height from 1990 to 2008. Researchers predict that the jobs will continue to decline as human workers are replaced with automation.

With a tough road ahead but regulation-gutting under way, Trump’s promise to save the coal industry rates In the Works.


Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, left, shakes hands with coal miners during a visit to Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company's Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa., in April 2017. The Trump administration wants to trash Obama-era rules to limit water pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Bureaucracy ties up rule reductions

The Trump administration has taken an aggressive approach to environmental and energy deregulation. But a complicated and lengthy legal process is likely to hinder Trump from fulfilling some of his promises.

The bureaucratic hoops that a proposed regulation must clear also apply to rule repeals and delays.

“Generally speaking, ‘deregulation’ is just ‘regulation,’ with the new regulation deemed, rightly or wrongly, less onerous than the old,” said Thomas Firey, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who specializes in regulation. “As such, the ‘deregulation’ has to go through the same rulemaking process as any other regulation: formulation of the proposed rule, publication of the proposal in the Federal Register, public comment, consideration of those comments, final rule.”

The process can take months or years, depending on the controversy surrounding the regulations, administration priorities or the complexity of the issue, Firey said.

The courts serve as a check when those proper procedures are not followed, as researchers from the New York University School of Law have detailed.

In June, for instance, the EPA announced a stay on a rule that would require drillers and transporters to report and fix any methane leaks they find in wells and transfer stations. A court struck down the freeze because the agency did not have the authority to halt the regulation.

And the Clean Power Plan started hitting legal walls while the Obama administration was still in power, when the Supreme Court granted a stay after two dozen states challenged the plan in court.

"Even if you had a president Hillary Clinton, there would have been some bruising legal battles with the Clean Power Plan,” said Philip Wallach, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Another way to slow the tide of environmental regulation is to cut down on enforcement, such as by reducing funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. But even that is a difficult task for an administration. Trump’s proposal to cut EPA funding by 31 percent has not yet found its way into Congress’ 2018 budget. Republicans’ draft appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, released in November, offered only a 2 percent cut from 2017 funding levels.

By appointing Scott Pruitt to the head of the EPA, Trump has ensured relaxed enforcement and pushback on Obama’s environmental policies, said Michael Oppenheimer, director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

That leaves Trump’s promise to scale back the EPA In the Works.


ROSS D. FRANKLIN | Associated Press
A local thermometer sign reads 120 degrees as temperatures climb to near-record highs in Phoenix in June 2017. As President Donald Trump touts new oil pipelines and pledges to revive the nation’s struggling coal mines, federal scientists are warning that burning fossil fuels is already driving a steep increase in the United States of heat waves, droughts and floods.

Environmental legacy

The Trump administration’s agenda will lead to a larger U.S. environmental footprint. The size and speed of the effects, however, are hard to pinpoint.

The United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement (Promise Kept) and the repeal of the Clean Power Plan are two of Trump’s most consequential environmental actions.

The Trump administration’s moves could be reversed if Trump fails to win re-election. At a minimum, he has delayed emissions limits by years, if not indefinitely.

“With the Clean Power Plan alone, (the Environmental Protection Agency was) anticipating about $100 billion in benefits by 2030. Those are going to get deferred for five years or whenever a new administration that wants to put something like that in place,” said Jessica Wentz, a staff attorney at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Trump’s oil and gas drilling measures will not happen instantly, particularly due to the five-year planning process that precedes lease signings and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

But once enacted, the moves could have lasting environmental impacts by increasing the fossil fuels on the market as well as increased methane emissions from drilling.

“Over the longer-run, policy changes put in place may have a lasting impact on the energy sector and environment, depending on how carefully those changes are made, and on the actions of future presidents, the Congress, and the courts,” said Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future. “Yet, with respect to coal, I think it’s mainly a question of how fast coal declines, not whether it will somehow reverse course.”

Trump’s climate policy has incentivized some cities, states and companies to curb emissions on their own, said Gernot Wagner, a research associate at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences who attended the Climate Summit, the Paris Agreement’s two-year anniversary.

“The counter-reaction and response was so strong, overall, we’re looking at a better trajectory than we would have without Trump’s announcement,” Wagner said, referring to the Paris Agreement’s decision.

For all of the backlash, however, the energy industry remains enthusiastic about Trump’s actions.

“It wasn’t Russia that intervened in our election process; it was divine intervention,” said Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, during a hearing. “Thank the Lord he guided these people in this country, the greatest country in the world, to elect Donald Trump.”

Additional credits

  • Editor Katie Sanders and Angie Drobnic Holan
  • Photo editor Chris Urso
  • Story design Lyra Solochek and Lauren Flannery