The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, Jan. 17:
Federal environmental policy often produces conflicting results. On one hand, the Environmental Protection Agency has promulgated a Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. On the other, Washington uses incentives and mandates to promote the use of ethanol in transportation fuel, even though environmental groups say ethanol is worse for the climate than gasoline.
Recently, the Bureau of Land Management decided to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota by vetoing a proposed nickel and copper mine that could have polluted it. Good enough. But government programs also can be harmful. “Decades of fire suppression by the Forest Service have disrupted natural fire cycles and turned many western forests into tinderboxes waiting to burn,” writes Terry Anderson and Reed Watson of the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont.
Getting the entire federal government to push in the same direction is no easy task, given the many agencies that have a hand in environmental issues. Getting the right balance between sensible protection and wasteful folly is also hard. Add to that a new complexity: the widespread fear that Donald Trump will surrender America’s public outdoors to extraction industries, big game hunters and private landholders.
Environmental groups such as those that work to protect and restore wolves, bears and other species are alarmed by some of the president-elect’s appointees. “How many threats to wildlife and the environment can Trump fit into one Cabinet?” one leading group, Defenders of Wildlife, asks on its website.
And that’s only one realm of concern. The incoming administration already has indicated it has some misplaced priorities. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, nominated to head the EPA, sued to block the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which limited emissions from power plants, and its regulations on methane, a potent greenhouse gas. All this fits with the president-elect’s vow to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and end what he calls “(President) Obama’s war on coal.”
Because those EPA rules are already in place, the next administration can’t simply scrap them. Undoing them would require it to go through a laborious process, followed by a protracted barrage of legal challenges.
Given the value of the regulations in moderating the long-term danger of global warming as well as protecting public health in the short term, we hope Trump decides not to reverse course. The shift away from coal has come about mostly because of its relatively high cost, not government dictates, and it’s unrealistic to think he could — or should — turn it around. Climate change is not the sort of problem that will go away if the president ignores it.
There are, however, steps his administration could take to reduce regulatory costs in an environmentally smart way. Trump’s pledge to expand oil and gas leasing on federal lands may help combat climate change by increasing the supply of natural gas, which emits far less carbon dioxide than coal. Federal fuel economy standards for cars and trucks — a clumsy, inefficient method to cut gasoline consumption — should be phased out. Congress and the EPA ought to stop pushing ethanol. Pruitt shares our dislike of the government’s ethanol mandate, which — mostly as a sop to farm state voters — requires that refiners mix increasingly large percentages of biofuels into gasoline.
Trump also could embrace an option that would simultaneously benefit the environment and reduce costs to the taxpayer and the economy. It’s an idea long favored by his nominee for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson: a carbon tax.
By raising the costs of fuels according to the damage they do, this remedy would use market forces to get the biggest bang for the buck. By creating tangible incentives, it would eliminate the need for the government’s tangle of renewable-fuel subsidies, fuel economy requirements and various gimmicks meant to alter how people behave.
Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush, has explained how proponents want “to put a price on carbon and incentivize people to reduce carbon emissions through a variety of different channels, allowing individuals to figure out what’s the best way to do that. Is it best to drive smaller cars? Is it best to carpool to work? Is it best to move closer to work? Is it best to commit to public transportation?”
The funds collected could be used to cut other taxes — corporate or individual — so there is no change in the total tax burden. That would enhance the benefits to the overall economy even as it reduces the federal role in our lives.
Many presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, are remembered long after for their achievements in preserving and protecting air, water, wildlife and wild places. The incumbent has made some valuable contributions. Trump would be wise to focus not on dismantling Obama’s legacy but on building his own.