The Fix | Analysis
March 29, 2017 at 2:42 PM
President Trump has taken steps to erase the Obama administration's environmental record in an effort to buoy the struggling coal industry. But the move risks running afoul of public opinion, with majorities of the public in support of several rules that Trump is focused on dismantling.
Trump's sweeping executive order includes rewriting rules curbing carbon emissions, lifting a moratorium on federal coal leases and removing the mandate that federal officials consider climate change impacts when making decisions. Trump already approved two major oil pipelines, rolled back other limits on extraction and burning of fossil fuels and eliminated a system that would have made energy companies pay more in federal royalties.
But in general, environmental regulations are popular with the public, putting Trump's deregulation at odds with many voters. And even as he's doing all of this, more Americans are concerned about global warming than ever.
Trump's overall push is motivated by the sense that environmental regulations have gone overboard, costing coal workers jobs and failing to take advantage of the nation's national resources. (The campaign promises also cushioned a comfortable victory margin for Trump in coal-producing states such as Kentucky and West Virginia.)
As The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis reported, Trump said Tuesday: "Our administration is putting an end to the war on coal. We're ending the theft of American prosperity, and rebuilding our beloved country."
But a poll last spring by Yale and George Mason universities showed 49 percent of voters said then-President Obama should be "doing more" or "much more" to address global warming, while 20 percent said he should be "doing less" or "much less." Public polls also show little appetite for loosening environmental regulations broadly or for several of Trump's specific changes. And his most popular action — approving the Keystone XL pipeline — has seen support drop sharply recently.
Other surveys have shown similar results. In February, Quinnipiac University found almost 6 in 10 voters saying the United States needs to do more to address climate change, compared with 17 percent who said the country is doing enough and 18 percent who said the country is doing too much.
According to a March Gallup poll, a record-high 45 percent of Americans worried "a great deal" about global warming, up from 37 percent in 2016. The same poll found record-high majorities saying that most scientists believe that global warming is happening (71 percent), that it is caused by human activity (68 percent) and that effects from it have already begun (62 percent). A 42 percent share said global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime, also a record high (although essentially the same as last year).
Two other recent polls show global warming concern at or near its highest levels on record. Quinnipiac's late March poll found 43 percent of registered voters "very concerned" about climate change, up from 37 percent in November and 29 percent in 2009. Pew Research Center found 52 percent calling global climate change a "major threat" to the nation's well-being, which is little changed from last year (53 percent) but up from 44 percent during Obama's first year as president.
And beyond broad opinions about global warming and the environment itself, American voters generally like the policies that Trump is in the process of overturning.
Here's a look at some policies Trump is reversing:
Cutting regulations that tamp down carbon emissions
One of Trump's proposed executive actions is signing an executive order instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to revisit regulation limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
According to the Yale/George Mason poll taken right after the election, 7 in 10 voters supported strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health, even if it would probably raise the cost of electricity. And 76 percent say carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant.
A 2014 Washington Post-ABC News poll found 70 percent supporting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, with 63 percent supporting limits if it raised their energy expenses by $20 a month.
Trump's changes may result in the United States failing to meet its obligations under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, an accord that most Americans support. In a January Washington Post-ABC News pre-inauguration poll, 56 percent of Americans opposed withdrawing from the treaty, including 39 percent "strongly."
Overturning stream protection rule
In February, Trump reversed an Obama administration rule that blocked coal-mining operations from dumping waste into waterways. While there is a lack of polling data on that exact rule, polls have found moderate concern about water pollution in recent years.
In May 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 23 percent of Americans said that water pollution of lakes, rivers and streams is a big problem in their local communities, while 43 percent said it was a "small problem."
Earlier this month, Gallup found 63 percent of Americans worried "a great deal" about polluted drinking water, about the same as last year but up from 55 percent in 2015. Another 57 percent were concerned a great deal about the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs, also about the same as last year, but up from 47 percent in 2015. Concerns for both of these issues was higher than for air pollution, global warming, extinction of plants and animals and the loss of tropical rain forests.
Approving Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines
Trump granted a permit for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline last week and for the Dakota Access pipeline in February. One of his first moves as president was signing an executive order reviving both pipelines, which had been stalled by the Obama administration amid much protest.
The Keystone XL pipeline garnered consistent public support during the Obama administration, when the project was blocked, but polls show support had dropped sharply by the start of Trump's presidency. Today, polls differ on whether more Americans support or oppose the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines. In February, a Fox News poll found 52 percent of registered voters supported the building of the Keystone pipeline — though that support was down from 68 percent in 2014 — while a Pew Research poll of the broader adult population taken the same month found slightly more opposition than support for the project (48 percent vs. 42 percent). The Pew survey found Democratic opposition to the Keystone pipeline had spiked from 46 percent in 2014 to 74 percent this year, while Republican attitudes had changed little.
Curtailing fuel-efficiency standards
In mid-March, Trump announced that he would look into rolling back automotive fuel efficiency standards adopted during the Obama administration, which currently require automakers to achieve 35.5 miles per gallon across their fleets and that they must reach 54.4 mpg by 2025. While polling on this issue is limited, surveys have found generally positive reactions to fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.
A 2014 Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that 69 percent of adults favor requiring automakers to increase fuel efficiency, even if the price of cars would increase.
Support for such standards is far from new. Way back in 1986, a Cambridge Reports found 78 percent in favor of maintaining the then-current standard of "about 27 miles per gallon" and 67 percent opposed to lowering standards to allow the manufacturing of larger cars with more variety.
And now, the but …
Despite all of this, it also remains true that climate ranks as a secondary issue, which may mute any political blowback.
Even with the public's clear reservations about curtailing environmental regulations, many do not see the issue as a top priority, a factor that could mute public blowback to Trump's actions.
A January Pew survey found a 55 percent majority saying "the environment" is a top priority for Trump and Congress and 38 percent saying the same of global climate change. The issues ranked 11th and 18th on a list of 21 policy areas, far behind terrorism (76 percent), the economy (73 percent) and education (69 percent). The share prioritizing the environment did see an 8-point spike since 2016 to its highest level since 2007, though global climate change showed no recent change.
The wide partisan gap in this issue suggests Trump's base may not be very concerned about his policy changes. A 62 percent majority of Democrats say climate change should be a top priority, but just 15 percent of Republicans say the same. Republicans have ranked climate change (or global warming before 2015) at close to the bottom of the list of policies for over a decade, while at the same time, it has steadily become more important to Democrats.
Beyond support for Trump's specific policies, the changes represent an about-face from Obama's willingness to eschew fossil fuel resources in the United States in an attempt to ward off environmental risks in the long run. Trump argues this approach is squandering the nation's natural resources and unnecessarily costing jobs in the coal industry.
While some polls have found support for expanding offshore drilling, they show less support for expanding coal. A Pew survey last year found 57 percent opposing the expansion of coal mining. A November 2016 Yale/George Mason survey found 55 percent saying that in the future, the United States should use less coal, oil and natural gas, while 17 percent wanted the country to use more. At the same time, 81 percent said the nation should use more renewable energy, while just 3 percent said it should use less.
A different Pew poll, this one taken this January, found 65 percent saying alternative sources such as wind and solar should be the more important priority for addressing America's energy supply, while just 27 percent wanted to prioritize the expansion of oil, coal and natural gas production.
Those attitudes were mirrored in a Gallup poll earlier this month, which found 71 percent saying the United States should emphasize alternative energy such as wind and solar power. Less than one-quarter, 23 percent, said the country should emphasize production of more oil, gas and coal.
And in the same poll, 59 percent said protection of the environment should be given priority over development of U.S. energy supplies like oil, natural gas and coal, the same percent as last year but also a record high.
It remains to be seen whether cutting back environmental protections will affect Trump's overall popularity, but as it stands, several of his actions pretty clearly put him at odds with majorities of the U.S. public.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.