the national interest

Why Trump Wants Even More Pollution Than Industry Does

Photo illustration of Donald Trump, who is not literally Heather Ledger’s “Dark Knight” Joker character. Photo-Illustration: Erin O’Flynn/Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images and Warner Bros.

One of the key liberal assumptions about Republican environmental policy is that it associates what’s good for industries with the public interest. (I’ve made this assumption many times myself.) One of the oddities of the Trump administration’s environmental policy is that it permits levels of pollution well beyond what business is even asking for.

The most recent example is the administration’s rollback of rules limiting methane emissions. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, trapping about 25 times more heat per unit than carbon dioxide. It is emitted as a by-product of drilling for oil and gas. The Environmental Protection Agency drew up regulations under the Obama administration to require drillers to capture leaked methane.

The Trump administration argues such regulations are not needed, because industry has all the incentive it needs to capture the methane on its own. “Trump officials were confident the oil and gas industry had an economic incentive to limit methane because capturing it allows companies to sell more gas,” senior administration officials tell the Washington Post. It sounds plausible in theory that drillers will stop leaks on their own because they don’t need to let a valuable gas float off into the sky, except for the nagging detail that in the real world, industry allows huge amounts of methane emissions.

The American Petroleum Institute has supported Trump’s anti-regulation emissions policy, but several of the largest drillers have opposed it. They have good reason. The Trump rollback will face a legal challenge, producing years of uncertainty during which drillers won’t know which rules they’ll ultimately have to follow. And it allows the sloppiest drillers to gain an advantage in the meantime over the more efficient ones.

Anne Idsal, the acting assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, tells the Wall Street Journal that the issue is the principle of the thing: They don’t want to do anything about climate change. “The purpose of this rule is to get to the fundamental basis of whether [methane] should have been regulated in the first place,” she says.

This is not the first Trump environmental rulemaking process that began with the objectives of owning the libs and humiliating Barack Obama. As the New York Times points out, Trump’s regulatory rollbacks have often drawn opposition from industry stakeholders. Some electric utilities have opposed Trump’s rollback of mercury pollution rules, while automakers have defied Trump’s efforts to rescind Obama-era efficiency standards.

The car companies are operating out of a practical understanding that since California can set its own pollution standards, it costs them more to split the market in two, producing efficient cars for the largest state in the union and gas-guzzlers for everywhere else. They have pragmatically negotiated with California, cutting Trump and his monomaniacal love of greenhouse gas emissions out of the process. Trump has been raging publicly at the automakers he claims to be helping:

But they are businesses. They might be willing to pollute the planet to make money, but it’s not their objective. Trump is the product of right-wing media, which has spent years not only denying climate science but turning the issue into a zero-sum culture-war fight in which maximizing fossil fuel production is defined as victory. That, combined with the right’s obsession with negating Obama-era policy accomplishments, produces a strange world in which the administration is demanding car companies and fossil fuel producers sacrifice their financial self-interest in order to accelerate climate change.

Trump’s partners in the business lobby thought they were undertaking a somewhat unethical yet pragmatic deal with the administration. But some men just want to watch the world burn.

Why Trump Wants Even More Pollution Than Industry Does