NYU School of Law will launch a new center, financed by Bloomberg Philanthropies, aimed at helping state attorneys general fight any federal moves to roll back renewable energy, environmental protections and climate policies.
The grant of nearly $6 million, which will establish the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, marks a new step in the escalating battle between state attorneys general and the Trump administration over the nation’s energy and environmental trajectory. Although the center will provide assistance to states regardless of party, Democratic attorneys general have been particularly aggressive in challenging the administration’s efforts to unravel regulations and policies that aim to curb fossil fuel production in the United States as well as restrict drilling and mining on federal lands and in federal waters.
“Every day there’s something that goes on that endangers the health and safety of Americans,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said Wednesday. “Attorneys general don’t begin to have the resources to meet these challenges.”
Former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has spent tens of millions of dollars through his charitable group to address climate change, giving $80 million to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign to shut down coal-fired plants across the country. The new center will provide legal assistance to the attorneys general on renewable energy, climate and environmental issues and will sponsor 10 lawyers on two-year fellowships who will work directly on cases in different attorneys general offices.
David J. Hayes, who served as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary under both the Obama and Clinton administrations, will serve as the center’s executive director. In an interview Wednesday, Hayes said that although “there’s never enough” funding to support this sort of advocacy, the grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies could support not only litigation against the federal government but also enforcement activities on the state level.
Hayes, who has taught at Stanford University Law School since leaving the federal government in 2013, said he thinks that Trump administration officials “are, as a general matter, very vulnerable” when it comes to court challenges.
“They are moving very quickly, and too quickly from a legal point of view,” Hayes said.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Abueg said the department “is fully prepared and committed to defend the administration’s decisions on energy and environmental matters in federal court.”
In many ways, the new initiative reflects the extent to which the parties have switched sides now that President Trump is in the Oval Office. When Barack Obama was president, Republican attorneys general — including Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt, who now heads the Environmental Protection Agency — challenged federal policies on issues including immigration and water quality.
Now it is Democratic attorneys general such as Frosh, New York’s Eric Schneiderman, California’s Xavier Becerra and New Mexico’s Hector Balderas who have filed multiple suits against the White House.
Schneiderman alone has spearheaded more than half a dozen suits challenging changes to federal energy and environmental policies, including leading a coalition of 23 state and local governments intervening to defend the Obama-era rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. This month, after 15 states and the District of Columbia sued to implement the 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards for smog, the EPA reversed course and announced that it would enforce them.
“There may be no better example of how the Trump administration is quickly and quietly trying to deregulate, defund, and destabilize our basic regulatory infrastructure than environmental policy,” Schneiderman said in a statement Wednesday.
In recent years Republican attorneys general have been able to mobilize substantial resources to support their statewide political campaigns. The Republican Attorneys General Association raised more than $19 million during the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, including nearly $1.4 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform and $500,000 from Republican casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. That total compared with about $6.7 million raised by the Democratic Attorneys General Association.
It remains unclear whether any Republican state leaders will collaborate with the new center. Frosh said the lawsuits he has filed against the administration have not needed the approval of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). But Maryland officials have informed the EPA that they plan to sue unless the agency ensures that coal-fired plants in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia install pollution controls so their output doesn’t harm Maryland’s air quality.