Monday, April 17, 2017 | 2 a.m.
On a brisk day in late February, we pulled off a one-way, unpaved loop and watched cattle dogs guide five cows across a flat basin. Weeks of heavy winter storms meant the Southern Nevada desert’s iconic drive-by shrubbery appeared greener and fuller.
Two months after then-President Barack Obama designated this 300,000-acre expanse the Gold Butte National Monument, little else had changed. The cattle remained controversial. The Bureau of Land Management continued saying it had no immediate plans to round them up. In nearby Mesquite, the designation continued to inflame the question: Where does the federal government’s power begin and end?
“Let’s get rid of the cows,” one supporter of the national monument had said at a BLM information session two weeks earlier. “When is that going to happen?”
A shaky recording later posted to YouTube shows a BLM official struggling to answer, amid clapping from monument supporters and a cacophony from opponents. The latter were mostly allies of local rancher Cliven Bundy, sharing his now infamous disdain for the federal government. The Gold Butte reserve is about 10 miles down the road from the site of a 2014 armed standoff between Bundy’s supporters and federal agents trying to impound his cows after he refused to pay more than $1 million in grazing fees and fines going back to the early 1990s. Referring to a “range war,” Bundy led a 90-minute siege that ended with his herd roaming free and, later, criminal charges for which he and others will stand trial in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas this year.
A BLM official explained that while the agency still had a court order to remove livestock grazing illegally on public land, it would wait for word from Washington, D.C.. The Trump administration was in charge. Matching the Trumpian overtones of our time, the crowd shouted back.
“What have the cows done to you?” a woman interrupted. “I like hamburgers,” said a man. Another asked: “Where’s the beef?”
Then someone alleged that the BLM was a private corporation out of Puerto Rico (a popular conspiracy theory on some conservative message boards). He looked at the officials and said: “I hope Trump takes the goon policing powers away from you people.”
Trump’s regulatory rollback
Jan. 20: On Inauguration Day, the administration scrubs references to global warming and climate change from the White House website.
Jan. 24: President Trump instructs the government to expedite the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Feb. 28: The EPA is told to dismantle an Obama-era rule that expanded the government’s ability to regulate small waterways through the Clean Water Act.
March 15: The Trump administration calls for a review of fuel-efficiency standards, considering a regulation rollback.
March 16: The White House proposes to cut funding for climate research and international funds, the EPA, Energy Star program and Clean Power Plan.
March 24: The State Department approves the Keystone XL Pipeline.
March 28: President Trump uses executive authority to reverse Obama-era climate regulations.
March 29: The Department of the Interior officially opens federal land to coal leasing.
Source: Columbia Law School Climate Deregulation Tracker
He might. President Donald Trump promises to take a hard turn away from Obama’s environmental policies, from the management of public lands to the direction of the energy industry. But what the Trump administration means for the 11 contiguous Western states, in practical terms, is unclear.
Asked in March if Trump had a coherent energy policy, Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, took a second and replied, “No.” Stavins, whose expertise has been tapped by Democratic and Republican presidents, said Trump’s team has continued to govern with ideologically driven campaign promises that were “inconsistent at the time but were wonderful applause lines.”
Economists have found Trump’s energy and environmental pledges often are at odds with economic and political realities. The reality, for instance, that as more utilities move away from coal, even some coal executives say it’s unwise to believe mining jobs will come back. Or the fact that dozens of Fortune 500 companies and nearly 30 states have pledges encouraging clean energy, which can make fossil fuels less desirable, regardless of the federal government’s actions. Or that the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator’s denial of climate change and rejection of current emissions standards run counter to the views of most Americans, EPA scientists and international leaders. All of it begs that same question: Where does the federal government’s power begin and end?
At the end of his tenure, Obama called the government an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat. He told The New Yorker the metaphor to explain the difficulty of passing his agenda, even when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. Trump is now in a similar position.
The Trump administration faces the constraints of federalism, a career bureaucracy, a body of legal precedent, changing energy markets and companies that — like the insurance business — have big capital requirements and use long-term assessments to make decisions.
As one environmental advocate put it, “the facts are uniting people in very interesting ways.”
WHERE CUTS COULD HIT HOME
About 160 miles from Reno, Winnemucca is the only incorporated city in a county that swung for Trump by 49 points.
Following concerns from the EPA and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection that pollutants were bleeding into the Humboldt River, the community of about 8,000 took on debt last year for the construction of a new $28 million wastewater treatment center. That’s roughly four times the city’s general fund.
Sampling of proposed cuts to the EPA
President Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt, the EPA’s director, slammed the agency for regulating greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists link to the changing climate. Pruitt denied carbon dioxide is the primary driver of climate change, a position that rejects the view of EPA scientists and the position of most U.S. energy companies, including ExxonMobil. “We need to continue the review and analysis,” Pruitt said.
Trump has asked Congress to cut the EPA’s $8.1 billion budget by $5.7 billion, or 31 percent. Many of those cuts have little to do with climate change, but instead affect clean water, air quality and state budgets (and EPA employees, as 1 in 4 jobs would be dissolved). According to a memo reported by the Washington Post, here’s what a few cuts look like:
Clean water: $102 million down to $71 million (31%)
Would affect the Public Water System Supervision, a grant that helps states create regulations for and maintain safe drinking water programs.
State multipurpose grants: $21 million down to $0 (100%)
Would eliminate EPA Multipurpose Grants, which provide states with funding to address climate change, air quality and general environmental issues.
Climate Protection Program: $70 million down to $0 (100%)
Would eliminate 14 segments of the Climate Protection Program, including Energy Star, Ag Star and several methane programs.
Superfund Program: $1.1 billion down to $762 million (30%)
Would reduce resources that go toward cleanup of hazardous materials and spills, as well as those that go toward penalizing and requiring companies to pay for pollution they cause.
Total cuts to states: $1.1 billion down to $597 million (44%)
States stand to lose nearly half of their federal funding. The average state gets about 27% of its environmental budget from the EPA.
“We feel that the Clean Water Act put stipulations on the Humboldt River that don’t belong on the Humboldt River,” City Manager D. Stephen West said. But the city had to pay the costs.
That sentiment seems to align with Trump’s call to cut back regulations; yet the everyday effects of federal funding cuts could hurt cities like Winnemucca, which received $20 million in loans and grant funding from the Department of Agriculture for its new facility (the city raised the $8 million remainder). During Obama’s presidency, Nevada counties and water systems drew more than $32 million from this program, according to U.S. spending data. In many cases, the federal dollars are necessary for cities and states to absorb the costs of existing federal regulations like the Clean Water Act.
In March, Trump proposed cutting it from the budget entirely, as well as reducing subsidies counties receive in lieu of lost property taxes for untapped development on federal lands within their jurisdictions. Nevada counties took in $26 million in such payments last year. California drew $47 million, while $28 million went to Wyoming and $35 million to Arizona.
Trump’s budget aims to cut dozens of environmental and energy programs within the Department of the Interior, the EPA, and the Department of Agriculture. Beyond the lackluster acronyms (PWSS, PILT) of these programs, advocates argue they provide crucial funding, often disproportionately to rural areas that comprised much of Trump’s electoral base. The president’s proposed budget is a starting point for Congress (many call it a “rhetorical document”), and some question whether the cuts will withstand political pressure.
Take a request to remove $230 million from the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act. The popular bipartisan tool allowed Clark County to grow by transferring public land to developers and using the sale proceeds to fund environmental projects.
That cut, included in a budget document leaked to Politico in March, is unlikely, says Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, who served as Trump’s Nevada chair and sits on the U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the budget for the Department of the Interior.
“No disrespect intended to anybody, (but) I don’t expect that money to be leaving the account at the end of the appropriations process,” said Amodei, who supports giving more municipalities control over federal land. Congress, not the president, controls the budget.
State environmental regulators, who often receive a large chunk of their funding from the EPA, could see cuts to programs that focus on cleaning up chemicals, testing drinking water and addressing local pollution. “We are unsure of the immediate or long-term impact to these funding sources,” said Tom Livers, who runs the state environmental program in Montana, which received about a third of its funding from the federal government.
In recent years, the federal funding has accounted for about 27 percent of state environmental budgets, and Trump’s cuts could shrink these payments by as much as 44 percent, according to data compiled by the Environmental Council of States. “It’s not an insignificant amount,” said Alex Dunn, the council’s director.
Last month, the EPA’s chief financial officer argued, in a memorandum leaked to the Washington Post, that these cuts are necessary to re-focus the agency’s mission on federal efforts and move away from voluntary programs that are redundant, inefficient and exceed the agency’s mission.
The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection receives about 30 percent of its total operating budget from EPA grants, according to its director, Greg Lovato. “We are reviewing potential impacts of these proposed funding reductions and will further evaluate options and contingency plans as EPA's budget works its way through Congress,” he said in a statement.
‘DECK CHAIRS ON THE TITANIC’
Why utilities are moving toward natural gas and renewables
• Coal power plants are inflexible because they must be run around the clock.
• Natural gas prices remain low because of fracking and the shale boom.
• Natural gas and renewables both emit less carbon than coal.
• Anticipation that the federal government will eventually put a penalty price on carbon emissions.
• A steady decrease in the cost of building solar and wind plants.
• Solar and wind are the cheapest fuel sources in some areas of the U.S.
• Pressure from large businesses with social responsibility pledges.
The foundation of Trump’s environmental and energy policy appears to revolve around his campaign promise to bolster the fossil fuel industry, especially coal. While regulations impact how the fossil fuel industry does business (whether a plant needs to make upgrades or change disposal methods), other factors dictate its growth, such as market prices and demand. “Eventually, all the decisions are made by the private sector,” Stavins said. “They are responding to price signals, which may be independent of government regulation, and they are responding to restraints from government.”
I spoke to Stavins two days after Trump announced an order reversing Obama-era coal rules, arguing the move would “cancel job-killing regulations.” This stance clashes with economic fact, Stavins said. Jobs in that sector are being lost to automation and cheap natural gas.
Utilities are shifting from coal in large part because of low natural gas prices. In the United States last year, natural gas, not coal, was the main fuel for electricity. Technology advances like hydraulic fracturing, which Trump wants to make more prevalent, drove up supplies and drove down prices. And natural gas is a more flexible resource when paired with renewables.
The shift away from coal also is driven by utilities planning 30 to 50 years into the future. A recent nationwide survey of utility executives showed that 82 percent believed solar would comprise an increasing share of energy portfolios during the decade. In the survey from Utility Dive, a trade publication for the electricity sector, More than 70 percent of respondents said the same about wind. Only 4 percent predicted an increase in coal. Natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide, and utilities want to be in a good business position in the likelihood that the United States decides to penalize carbon emissions.
“So much about energy policy is driven by states and driven by corporate demand and driven by consumer demands,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industry Association, adding that the West is particularly strong in solar generation.
Even as Trump chips away at Obama’s regulatory framework, economists say the current trend away from coal will continue.
“In a macroeconomic sense, it’s a little like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an analyst with Seattle-based clean-energy think tank the Sightline Institute.
THE GOLDEN STATE AND THE GOLDEN GOOSE
Conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz, a sports and entertainment magnate who owns right-leaning publications and is a consistent contributor to Republican campaigns, owes his start to fossil fuels. So it might come as a surprise that in 2016, Anschutz began building the country’s largest wind farm in Carbon County, Wyoming.
Why is an oilman ditching carbon in a county known for coal? California, and the West along with it.
By state law, California must source 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, a policy that’s sparking demand for renewables throughout the region. Other states have similar requirements. To go along with his $5 billion wind-energy plant, Anschutz also is building a transmission line that will run from Wyoming to Nevada, at which point it would provide power to the Western grid. That’s part of the reason Pacificorp, a Western utility owned by NV Energy’s parent company, recently announced a $3.5 billion investment in wind. Economists say renewables are becoming an economic issue, not a political one.
Congress passed a credit for renewables last year on a bipartisan basis, noted Ross Hopper, who came from the fossil fuel industry to her job with the solar trade group. She added that while liberal California leads in solar installations, it is followed by a red state: North Carolina.
Renewable portfolio standards by state
Washington: 15% by 2020
Oregon: 25% by 2025
*California: 50% by 2030
*Nevada: 25% by 2025
Arizona: 15% by 2025
*New Mexico: 20% by 2020
Colorado: 30% by 2020
Montana: 15% by 2025
*Legislators have introduced bills to increase state renewable portfolio standards.
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures
Western states have introduced hundreds of clean-energy bills this year, including one in Nevada that would raise the state’s renewable portfolio standard. While some look askance at renewables — often as backlash to the hyper-local effects of industrywide disruption — many observers are confident that legislators will back solar and wind because they offer new tax bases and job opportunities. “From a state policymaking standpoint, you see a much larger flow of revenue and flow of jobs from boosting renewables,” Williams-Derry said.
One such legislative effort earlier this year attempted to raise the tax that Wyoming, a top coal-producing state, levies on wind generation. This was opposed by the Anschutz project, which, according to several press reports, argued with Carbon County officials that the tax would make wind less viable and could jeopardize the millions in taxes that the wind companies are required to pay. That argument prevailed, and the effort failed in January.
Despite rhetoric slamming renewables, the Trump administration is not blind to their economic impact. An Arizona solar project and power lines for Anschutz’s wind project were listed as top national priorities, according to a leaked version of Trump’s infrastructure plan.
“It is appropriate for the federal government to consider these wind and transmission projects as national infrastructure priorities to complete,” Kara Choquette, a spokeswoman for Anschutz’s Wyoming wind farm (known as the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre project) said in an emailed statement. “We are confident that these projects can advance under this administration, which recognizes the value of large infrastructure development.”
Another dynamic has shifted in recent years. Clean energy advocates and conservationists have become increasingly comfortable flexing their economic muscle to pressure states into adopting positive environmental policies. Earlier this year the Outdoor Industry Association pulled its annual retail show from Utah — its home for two decades — after the governor signed a resolution calling on Congress to dismantle the Bear Ears national monument.
“Companies felt that the size of our industry and the outdoor recreation economy was not being reflected. We, as an industry, have this core set of values,” said association president Amy Roberts, adding that the industry had received proposals from several other states.
“It’s the super-local versus state versus national policies,” Williams-Derry said.
THIS LAND IS WHOSE LAND?
Where does Trump stand on public lands?
On land transfers, Trump told Field & Stream: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great.” His son, a hunter, supports federal control. Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke has said: “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public lands.”
At the same time, the Republican Party platform calls on Congress to “immediately” pass legislation allowing the government to “convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.” This position typically is supported by Republican congressional members in the West:
New Mexico, 34.7%
Source: U.S. Geological Survey
State legislatures across the West have introduced more than a dozen bills encouraging the federal government to hand over more public land. A resolution in Nevada, for instance, would urge Congress to transfer certain lands to the states, a limited measure that backers said would focus primarily on parcels that affect private property owners. “I don’t think that’s too high of a bar to ask for,” said one sponsor, state Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden.
Settelmeyer stressed that it would not affect national monuments, a common argument against land transfers.
The U.S. government controls 47 percent of Western land. In Nevada, it’s 85 percent, fueling concerns among property owners, ranchers, policymakers and companies, about national policies having outsized power to dictate how ranchers and developers use the land.
Trump’s public land policy so far has largely focused the issue of federal ownership around energy. The administration changed BLM planning rules, and it has lifted regulations requiring companies to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing on public lands. In late March, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lifted an Obama-era moratorium for coal leases on public lands. Trump has not personally touched the issue of ceding federal land to the states, though in January, the House of Representatives passed budget rules that make it easier.
Nada Culver, a senior counsel for the Wilderness Society, said it’s a self-defeating strategy to frame the issue around energy when public lands are so beloved. “It’s one thing to try to pretend that everybody in America only cares about helping the oil and gas industry,” Culver said. “But that’s not true. We know that from polling. We know that from being normal American people.”
And the public has been quick to protest changes to land policy. Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, proposed the sale of 3.3 million acres of Western land. Backlash came from an alliance of conservationists and hunters. The president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers was quoted as saying that the bill kicked open “the hornet’s nest.” Swamped with #keepitpublic messages, Chaffetz withdrew the bill and used the hashtag in a mea culpa post.
A 2016 National Park Foundation survey found that 95 percent of Americans want to protect public land, and that 80 percent would pay more taxes to do it. In the West, 58 percent of the population opposes transfers, according to another 2016 survey by Colorado College.
Some fiscal conservatives oppose transfers, too. Right now, the federal government shoulders the cost of fighting wildfires and managing public lands. If ownership changed hands, they fear, these costs would fall onto states and require new revenue streams or budget cuts.
Added tension in the Republican ranks comes from the tug between ranchers, who detest federal land, and hunters, who support it.
Amodei learned this last year during hearings for a bill he introduced. It called on the U.S. government to convey federally owned land to Nevada with exceptions for national parks and wilderness areas. He was surprised by the opposition from hunters, who worried that such a move might give too much management responsibility to the states. Amodei plans to reintroduce a narrower version this year. He said: “OK, we heard you.”
With the Trump administration seeming reluctant to green-light public land transfers, some advocates are turning their focus toward national monuments, including Bear Ears and Gold Butte. In January, Amodei and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., introduced legislation that would ban a president from creating or expanding national monuments without congressional approval.
“Public input and local support remain critical to the decision-making process of federal land designations,” Heller said in a statement at the time. “This legislation prevents actions like last month’s Gold Butte land grab from occurring without input from Congress and local officials.”
Several state legislators, including in Utah and Nevada, have introduced bills urging Congress or Trump to roll back the monument designations. High Country News recently reported that four other Western states have proposed legislation limiting the monuments.
“Nevada is a public-land state. A lot of the politics here are driven by the conversation around public lands. We have seen some softening of the conversation about the wholesale transfer of public lands from the federal government to the state,” said Andy Maggi, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League. “With that said, public lands are still certainly under threat from this administration and from the federal government. The conversation around dismantling national monuments is alive and well. We are watching that very closely.”
THE REALLY BIG PICTURE
It’s difficult to gauge the lasting effects of Trump’s bluster on climate change, an issue so systemic and affected by so many independent decisions, that it transcends any one person. Trump, who has in the past called climate change a “hoax,” is checked by external forces.
But he can do enough to the world’s largest economy that certain fears may prove rational. The United States was unlikely to achieve the emissions goals set by the nearly 150 nations that ratified the Paris Agreement last year. Now it runs the risk of falling further behind at a breaking point, as immediate action could prevent the planet from warming two degrees above pre-industrial levels, a target that would temper the worst impacts of climate change. Many argue that this is not possible without the leadership of the U.S. government.
But with the federal government no longer looking at climate change as part of the calculus for crafting energy and environmental policy, some are looking to local governments and private organizations to fill the void. There is an economic cost to inaction. Few have made this case more often than California Gov. Jerry Brown, one of the state-level leaders getting global and municipal leaders to make agreements to address climate, regardless of a federal government’s position or approach to the issue.
“We have to join with the willing,” Brown recently said on Sacramento’s Capitol Public Radio, “a coalition of the willing.”