Donald Trump’s environmental policy is one of the areas in which he has pursued a conventional Republican agenda that has pleased all wings of his party. A handful of Republicans have expressed dismay with the rampant petty corruption of Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt, now the subject of 11 active investigations into allegations of misconduct. Almost none have questioned the administration’s agenda itself. Which is odd, because Trump’s approach to environmental protection — or, more accurately, lack thereof — is increasingly detached from conservatism.
On one front, the Environmental Protection Agency is fighting to roll back auto-emissions standards that had been put into place by the Obama administration. The catch is that, if the federal government weakens its auto-emissions levels, states can fill their place. California, in particular, has strict auto-emission standards, and car companies don’t want to have to build two different kinds of engines for different states. The Trump administration is accordingly trying to challenge California’s ability to set its own standards.
The notion that states are repositories of hard-won local wisdom, whose independence must be secured against the whims of the rulers in a distant capital, is a hardy truism of conservative rhetoric. When Pruitt took his job, he gave a puffy interview to The Wall Street Journal opinion page, which headlines his principled commitment to “states’ rights.” Pruitt lambasted the Obama administration for its “attitude that the states are a vessel of federal will. They were aggressive about dictating to the states and displacing their authority and letting it be known they didn’t trust the states.” But now that a state (California) is trying to protect its citizens in a way it sees fit, Pruitt is riding in from Washington to tell the state that he knows best.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who once wrote an entire book explicating his belief that the vast majority of the federal government violates the Constitution, is contemplating a new policy to support coal. Perry told a House panel he is “looking very closely” at a plan, urged on by the coal industry, to use the 1950 Defense Production Act, designed to prevent wartime shortages of steel, to permanently prop up coal.
The rationale for this desperate maneuver is that, for all the rhetoric about the Obama administration’s “War on Coal,” the largest single threat to coal’s viability is market forces. Natural gas is cheaper almost everywhere, and both solar and wind power are dropping in price quickly and undercutting coal in many parts of the country. And so, to compete, coal requires artificial subsidies from big government.
The historical progression of Republican environmental policy is worth reflecting upon. The Nixon administration, which had mainstream right-of-center domestic policies, supported the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, and what would by today’s standards be considered extremely stringent regulatory methods. The conservative movement rebelled against this, along with other practical aspects of Nixon’s domestic policy, and yanked the party to the right.
Conservative environmental policy purportedly took a market-oriented approach, favoring a light hand from government. Since even serious conservative economists acknowledged that markets have to put a price on pollution, the conservative approach to the environment required downplaying evidence of the dangers of pollution and hyping its costs. Accordingly, the conservative movement created a large intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) infrastructure dedicated to denying the theory of anthropogenic global warming or treating the consensus findings of climate scientists as uncertain or fabricated. Because we didn’t know carbon dioxide was an important source of greenhouse gas pollution, there was no rush to put a price on its emission. But this position was always cloaked in the lingo of market supremacy.
Over time, that position was absorbed into the pantheon of conservative messaging, which in turn seeped into the consciousness of the voting public. West Virginia, which had once voted solidly Democratic, turned Republican. Donald Trump repeatedly professed his love of coal mining. The notion that coal was good was thereby accepted as an element of Republican doctrine, to the point where the pro-market rationale can now be discarded altogether.