Trump's environmental policy is mainly about owning the libs, and that's better news for the environment than you might think

  • Scott Pruitt’s legacy of incompetence at the EPA is living on, even with his more diligent successor.
  • That’s because President Donald Trump may not let the acting EPA administrator be thorough, make arguments that can stand up in court, and actually get deregulation done.
  • Trump’s environmental policy has often created the appearance of deregulation without much to show for it.

For liberals, the silver lining of Scott Pruitt’s corrupt reign at the Environmental Protection Agency was his incompetence.

Pruitt became a conservative darling by developing a reputation as an aggressive deregulator, and that reputation helped him build goodwill with President Donald Trump that persisted for months after virtually everyone else in Washington had come to hate him.

But Pruitt’s efforts at deregulation were often shoddy.

As Coral Davenport has described in The New York Times, Pruitt’s actions were repeatedly blocked or reversed by courts, often in decisions that pointed out obvious ways Pruitt had failed to follow the law.

Now, Pruitt is gone. His successor, acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, shares his scepticism of environmental regulation, especially regulation related to fossil fuels and climate change. But Wheeler does not share Pruitt’s slapdash approach. He intends to take his time, make arguments that can stand up in court, and actually get deregulation done.

But as we learned this week, Trump may not let him do that.

Trump’s new EPA head tried to warn against weaker fuel efficiency rules …

Under Pruitt’s watch, Trump’s EPA and Transportation Department developed a plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and revoke California’s Clean Air Act waiver that allows the state to impose its own, stringent emissions standards.

According to Davenport, Wheeler “has tried to put the brakes on the plan, fearing that its legal and technical arguments are weak and will set up the Trump administration for an embarrassing courtroom loss.”

On my radio show “Left, Right & Center” this week, Davenport even told me Wheeler tried (unsuccessfully) to get the EPA’s logo taken off the announcement of the proposal because he thought it was so shoddy.

In particular, the proposal relies on a hastily crafted analysis claiming stricter fuel efficiency standards would lead to more auto accident deaths, contradicting expert analyses conducted in the Obama administration. If courts are unconvinced by the new numbers, they may throw out the rule. The proposal to revoke California’s decades-old waiver is also considered especially legally dubious.

Once the proposal is turned into a formal rule, these issues will be litigated for years, which will cost automakers money as they won’t be able to effectively plan for what cars they will be allowed to sell in 2020 and beyond.

That’s a reason the auto industry, which did want the fuel efficiency rules relaxed somewhat, has been surprisingly hostile to the idea of freezing them altogether. Like Wheeler, they want a rule that will stand up in court.

… but Trump didn’t listen

Despite Wheeler’s warnings, the White House went ahead and announced the freeze and the fight with California on Thursday.

Why so cavalier?

Davenport reports that Jeffrey Rosen, the Deputy Secretary of Transportation and a key advocate of the freeze, believes “by the time any challenge makes it to the Supreme Court, the court’s makeup will be more friendly to a conservative, anti-regulatory policy, according to individuals familiar with his thinking.”

He shouldn’t be so sure.

Trump’s two picks for the Supreme Court (one confirmed and on the bench, and one nominated) are major critics of so-called Chevron Deference, the doctrine that says the court should defer to administrative agencies in interpreting ambiguous statutes. For years, conservatives on the court have been pushing to put agencies on a tighter leash and reject creative interpretations of laws.

Weakening the Chevron doctrine would serve conservatives’ interests next time a Democratic administration is trying to regulate aggressively, but it should tend to make the courts more hostile to slapdash, Pruitt-style regulation.

But what if Trump doesn’t really care whether the plan gets thrown out in court?

Announcing policies that won’t hold up in court to own the libs

Maybe Trump liked Pruitt so much in part because their styles are so similar. Talk a big game now, worry about whether the condos ever actually get built later.

If Pruitt’s objective at the EPA was to deregulate, he did not perform very well. But if Pruitt’s objective was to create the appearance of deregulation, he was a wild success, much as Trump was a wild success at creating the appearance of real-estate development.

Understand what Wheeler was asking the president to do on auto emissions: Give up a big, splashy initiative to roll back environmental regulations and pass on an opportunity to fight liberal California in court. Whatever that would have meant for Trump’s substantive record on environmental deregulation, he was asking the president to give up a juicy opportunity to appear to deregulate.

Of course Trump didn’t listen to him.

For conservatives who hoped the rise of Wheeler would mean a more substantive deregulatory agenda on the environment, this is bad news.

But for those conservatives who mostly enjoy environmental policymaking as a way to announce things that make liberals sad – and let’s be honest, that’s a lot of what politics is these days – this is a good sign that Pruitt-style policymaking may persist, long after Pruitt’s own tenancy at the EPA has ended.

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