For the rest of December, Washington Examiner reporters will be exploring what 2018 has in store in a number of areas, from the White House and Congress to energy and defense. See all of our year ahead stories here.
President Trump’s energy dominance agenda and overthrow of the Obama administration's environmental regulations will hit its stride in 2018 after a year of pushing a pro-growth agenda that seeks to boost fossil fuel production.
Industry groups, conservative think tanks and left-leaning activist group are all trying to sift through the administration’s forceful deregulation push to understand where to target their lobbying and litigation in the new year.
The Interior and Energy departments are pushing forward with a number of new rules while continuing 2017's theme of pulling back on regulations to reduce costs and spur economic growth. The agenda, known as "energy dominance," isn't going away anytime soon.
More than monuments
Environmentalists are keeping a particular eye out for President Trump to act on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's remaining recommendations to strip protections from national monuments through shrinking boundaries or revising monument proclamations by previous administrations.
Trump's rollback of Utah's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments has landed Zinke and the president in court. That lawsuit will play out in 2018.
Groups anticipate a push to relax regulations to allow for drilling in national parks, according to environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity. They also will be looking out for the administration to lift a ban on uranium mining across 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon.
They also expect Trump to relax National Environmental Policy Act rules to make it harder for the public to protest oil and natural gas leases, as well as a number of other regulations established by the Obama administration to cut oil production on federal lands.
Trump supporters see the actions as a pro-growth agenda meant to fuel job growth through development of natural resources. But for environmentalists, it represents industry gone wild and a polluters' paradise.
Nemesis in chief
The Center for Biological Diversity has set itself up to be Trump’s top nemesis in the coming year. The group has sued the president nearly 40 times since he was elected, beginning with the first lawsuit against the president’s border wall because of its proposed route through wildlife sanctuaries.
Many of the environmental groups opposing the administration's deregulation push look to bog it down in the courts. So, despite Trump’s declarations of lifting burdensome rules and squashing climate accords, his efforts are stalled.
“We’ve just witnessed one of the most reckless administrations in history trying to dismantle environmental protections without regard for the law or public health,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“But for all its bluster, the Trump administration hasn’t actually accomplished much," Saul added. "So we expect to defend our fragile environment against many more attacks in 2018.”
The push for offshore drilling
At the same time, the Interior and Energy departments will move to offer new offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Atlantic Ocean and Arctic.
That will be done while dismantling rules created in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig disaster in the Gulf.
Zinke plans to propose a revised version of the Obama administration’s “Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control Rule,” which was finalized last year, six years after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, causing the largest spill in the industry's history and killing 11 workers.
The rule covers the blowout preventer device, which CNN ran 24-hour live footage of as the broken mechanism at the bottom of the sea spewed a never-ending amount of oil into the Gulf. The device is meant to prevent a surge in pressure from causing catastrophic explosions and spills. The 2010 spill was caused by BP's lack of maintenance of the blowout valve.
The American Petroleum Institute has questioned the need for the undersea valve protection rules, arguing that the industry's own standards are adequate without duplicative regulations. API said in 2015 that although the rule follows the industry's lead of improved safety, "certain aspects of the rule, if not fixed, could have unintended consequences that increase the risk to people and the environment.”
Offshore oil development is an incredibly difficult and expensive business, the industry says, and the rule would prove burdensome in light of Trump's dominance agenda.
Zinke is looking to revise specific provisions of the well control rule to bring it in line with the administration’s America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.
Down with the fracking rule
The Bureau of Land Management also plans to repeal the Obama administration’s fracking rule by the end of January. Interior proposed ending the rule in July, wrapped up the comment period in September, and hopes to finalize the rule by the end of the month, according to the White House's unified agenda.
The Obama-era rule targets the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has made the U.S. the world’s leading producer of energy.
BLM says the fracking rule "unnecessarily burdens industry with compliance costs and information requirements that are duplicative of regulatory programs of many states and some tribes,” according to the unified agenda. “As a result, we are proposing to rescind, in its entirety, the 2015 final rule.”
Killing off the rule has been a top priority of the oil and natural gas industry, as well as Republican lawmakers from western states.
The rule affects oil wells on public lands that are found mainly in the West. Activist groups are expected to sue the agency after the rule is made final, adding to the list of Trump administration actions going to court in the new year.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry is doing his part to spur oil and natural gas development by creating new markets for the products overseas, which helps to spur domestic production.
The Energy Department has the final say in licensing large liquefied natural gas exports from the U.S. to Europe and Asia, which is continuing. But Perry also is looking to create a new market for smaller amounts of natural gas exports to countries that don’t have the technology to handle much larger liquefied natural gas tankers.
Perry is slated to finalize his rule for small natural gas exports in February.
He also will be busy with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on a key proposal for saving coal and nuclear plants from closing because of market and other factors.
FERC is expected to decide on whether to move forward with the proposal in January, but it not clear if the agency will abide by Perry’s wishes.
Perry’s grid plan would provide market incentives to coal and nuclear power plants to ensure grid reliability and resilience at times when electricity is strained by adverse weather.
The FERC-overseen grid operators would pay the power plants for their unique ability to keep a three-month supply of fuel on site, which renewables and natural gas plants have difficulty doing.
A large coalition of groups including every sector from the oil industry to solar panel manufacturers opposes the Perry proposal. Even utilities with coal plants don’t like it. The nuclear industry supports the FERC regulation, as do pro-coal groups and mining companies such as Murray Energy.
Officials point out that even if FERC approves the Perry plan, it will end up in court, where it could be waylaid for months.
“The reality is that the oil and gas and renewable sectors are doing great regardless of Trump and his administration because the markets are strong,” said David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center and former Interior deputy secretary.
“When you look behind the rhetoric, what are they able to deliver that markets cannot?” Hayes asked. “When you look at coal and nuclear, they haven't really provided anything because the markets are speaking more loudly than government can or is.”
The Pruitt factor
Then there is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and his deregulation agenda and plan to reorganize the agency to focus more on working with businesses to shore up compliance. Critics say that would move the EPA away from being an environmental cop to an industry coach that helps companies get around regulation.
The EPA refutes the accusations, saying it means to go after polluters. Nevertheless, Pruitt’s policy on enforcement could lead the agency once again to the courts, as environmental groups mull new litigation over Pruitt’s reorganization. Most of the legal action taken against Pruitt has come from his proposed repeal or delaying of an Obama-era regulation.
The lawsuit being mulled by the Natural Resources Defense Council would challenge Pruitt's direction for the agency. Other environmental groups say it is fertile ground for litigation that someone should be considering.
Clean Power Plan
Pruitt also is looking to finalize a regulation repealing the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate agenda, the Clean Power Plan, in the new year. Pruitt also recently initiated the first steps toward developing a proposed regulation to replace the climate rule with the Trump administration’s own version, which is expected to be limited and beneficial to coal plants.
A coalition of environmental groups, backed by Democratic attorneys general and renewable energy groups, is expected to sue over both of Pruitt’s rules for the Clean Power Plan.
Paris or bust
A consensus is growing among environmentalists that the 200 countries that signed onto the Paris climate change agreement should give up on the U.S. for the time being, with Trump announcing June 1 the country would withdraw from the accord.
Some environmental groups argue that it may be a better use of time and resources to ignore Trump and move ahead with the climate agreement until the U.S. decides to come back under another administration.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, the leader of a group of states and local leaders pledging to stay in the Paris accord, will hold a summit in September where that resolve will be on full display.
But that doesn’t mean Trump is off the hook. On the contrary, the summit likely will be used to draw voters to oppose Republican candidates in the 2018 mid-term elections.
Groups such as Friends of the Earth, the first green group to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential race, is already engaged in a campaign to draw in voters based on Trump’s environmental record.
Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a leading environmental advocate in the Senate, told reporters that Trump's record on the environment, especially the tax reform bill's lifting of the ban to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, will be used by the Democrats during the 2018 mid-term elections. Meanwhile, look for environmental groups to take the drilling legislation to court.