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Scott Pruitt calls for an ‘exit’ from the Paris accord, sharpening the Trump White House’s climate rift

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, left, shakes hands with coal miners during a visit to Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company’s Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa., on April 13. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

This story has been updated.

President Trump’s top environment official called for an “exit” from the historic Paris agreement Thursday, the first time such a high-ranking administration official has so explicitly disavowed the agreement endorsed by nearly 200 countries to fight climate change.

Speaking with “Fox & Friends,” Pruitt commented, “Paris is something that we need to really look at closely. It’s something we need to exit in my opinion.”

“It’s a bad deal for America,” Pruitt continued. “It was an America second, third, or fourth kind of approach. China and India had no obligations under the agreement until 2030. We front-loaded all of our costs.”

Pruitt’s claim about China and India having “no obligations” until 2030 is incorrect — while these countries do indeed have 2030 targets, they are already acting now to reduce their emissions by investing in renewable energy and other initiatives.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s claim that China and India have no obligations until 2030 under the Paris accord

Pruitt had called the Paris accord a “bad deal” in the past but does not appear to have previously gone so far as to call for the United States to withdraw.

The Trump administration has previously said it is currently reviewing its position on climate change and energy policy and remains noncommittal, for now, on whether it will follow through on the president’s campaign pledge to “cancel” the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Trump’s recent executive order on energy policy, which set in motion the rollback of Obama’s domestic Clean Power Plan, was silent on the matter of Paris.

The Paris Agreement entered into force on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016. The Post's Chris Mooney explains where we go from here. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

“You might’ve read in the media that there was much discussion about U.S. energy policy and the fact that we’re undergoing a review of many of those policies,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said in Texas on Thursday, according to prepared remarks. “It’s true, we are and it’s the right thing to do.”

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said that the administration will resolve its view on the Paris accord “by the time of the G7 Summit, late May-ish, if not sooner.”

Amid this uncertainty, the statement aligns Pruitt with a more hard-line approach held by some in the Trump administration, such as chief strategist Stephen Bannon, rather than the more moderate take of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had said in his confirmation hearing that the U.S. should have a “seat at the table” in the Paris negotiations, and Ivanka Trump and her husband and Trump confidant Jared Kushner.

Tillerson’s former company, the oil giant ExxonMobil, has also supported the Paris accord, and in late March wrote a letter to the White House reiterating its view that “the United States is well positioned to compete within the framework of the Paris agreement, with abundant low-carbon resources such as natural gas, and innovative private industries, including the oil, gas, and petrochemical sectors.”

If the Trump administration wants to take a more moderate approach to the Paris deal, it could consider modifying the United States’ current pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, rather than seeking to exit altogether.

That’s a tack advanced in a letter to Trump, previously reported on by E&E News, by North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who argued that “the U.S. should present a new pledge that does no harm to our economy,” one that would highlight “the importance of baseload power generation, including highly efficient and low emission coal-fired and nuclear power plants.”

The Obama administration had promised the world that the United States would reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below its 2005 levels by the year 2025. The Trump administration could simply revise that pledge and make it less ambitious, and easier to attain.

President Trump will sign an executive order on March 28 to wipe away former president Barack Obama's environmental record. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

In the energy sector, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have already declined by 14 percent from 2005 to 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The reason is more burning of natural gas rather than coal and a growing profusion of renewables.

“It is looking like we may see them announce that they’re going to stay in Paris and also announce simultaneously that they’re going to revise the U.S. target under Paris to 2025,” Andrew Light, a senior fellow in the global climate program at the World Resources Institute, noted in an interview earlier this week. But as he added, “look, these guys are unpredictable, and I don’t think we can know.”

It is far from clear how the Trump administration could actually “exit” the Paris agreement, assuming that the Pruitt line wins and the administration determines that it wants to. Now that the agreement has entered into force, it takes three years under its terms for a party to withdraw, followed by a one-year waiting period — a length roughly equal to Trump’s first term in office.

One of the most fervent voices pushing the Trump administration to withdraw from the Paris agreement, however, has been the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Last summer, the group called the Paris deal “the latest in a series of costly policy choices the U.S. government has made because of its participation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” and it urged the United States government to withdraw from the UNFCCC altogether.

“Such a dramatic transformation will drive energy costs higher for developed nations and block access to dependable energy sources for developing ones,” authors from Heritage wrote about the Paris accord in one report. “America’s participation in international climate change programs has wasted taxpayer money and led to questionable and harmful interventions in energy markets through government-backed financial programs, mandates, and heavy-handed regulation.”

In a recent op-ed in Investor’s Business Daily, Heritage employees Stephen Moore and Timothy Doescher wrote that following through with the climate change promises made under the Obama administration “would effectively decapitate our coal industry, which now supplies about one-third of our electric power. If Trump allows this deal to go forward, he will unwittingly fulfill Hillary Clinton’s arrogant and dastardly promise to put every coal miner in America out of a job.”

They added, “We can’t help wondering if the thousands of university professors, environmental activists, climatologists and government bureaucrats would be so enthusiastic if it were their jobs that were going to be eliminated.”

While the Trump administration has backed away from the global leadership on climate change that President Obama pursued, other countries have embraced that role.

“The Paris Agreement is a hard-won achievement which is in keeping with the underlying trend of global development,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the World Economic Forum earlier this year. “All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.”

The country also has announced plans to spend more than $360 billion dollars over the next several years investing in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. In January, China’s National Energy Administration outlined a plan to make massive investments in clean energy through 2020, even as President Trump has focused almost exclusively on supporting the fossil fuel industry. The country said it expects such funding to create roughly 13 million jobs, reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses responsible for global warming and lessen the smog that has long plagued Beijing and other Chinese cities.

As for India — which is on course to greatly increase its energy demand in coming years as electrification reaches more and more of the country’s vast population — it, too, is moving to address climate change. It has, for instance, a plan to install 100 gigawatts of solar energy capacity by the year 2020 — more than double the amount that the U.S. currently has, notes Anjali Jaiswal, director of the India initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“It’s completely false that India is not doing anything under the Paris agreement,” said Jaiswal, noting that the country is seeking to expand solar and other forms of renewable energy both to lessen grave air pollution problems and also because the country has a vast natural solar resource.

“India is not backing away from its Paris commitments and goals for renewable energy because the country has a need and desire to be more efficient as its economy grows,” added Priyavrat Bhati,  an energy analyst with Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

— Annie Gowen contributed to this report.

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