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Now That Trump’s in as President, What Can (and Can’t) He Do to Environmental Regulations?

Because we know you’re wondering. (Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

As of Friday’s inauguration, we can now say ‘President Donald Trump’, and that new status could have far-reaching implications for the environment. While campaigning, Trump said he would make some big changes to environmental regulations, including spearheading an overhaul of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The Department of Environmental Protection — we are going to get rid of it in almost every form,” Trump said during a Republican primary debate back in March. “We’re going to have little tidbits left, but we’re going to take a tremendous amount out.”

LISTEN: What Exactly Can Trump Do As President?

That sounds like a big claim. But what exactly can Donald Trump do when it comes to the country’s environmental laws and rules? That is, what does he actually have the power to do as President? We put that question to Jody Freeman, the founding director of Harvard’s Environmental Law Program. She worked in the Obama administration and oversaw the crafting of new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Here’s what she had to say, for instance, about that plan for the EPA and Trump’s pledge to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.

Trump has said many ambitious things. Number one, he can’t unilaterally do many of the things he’s suggesting; and number two, many of the changes would take some time. I don’t want to suggest he can’t do anything new, but it’s not quite as fast and broad as he’s been implying with his rhetoric. Dismantle EPA — that’s something he can’t do without Congress. He said he can cancel Paris. Turns out he doesn’t have power as President to cancel international agreements. But he can do smaller versions of those kinds of things.

For example, Freeman told us Trump can start to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, which commits the U.S. to reducing its carbon emissions by a little more than 25 percent by 2025. But withdrawing from that agreement is a four-year process, so it’s not like things will change overnight.

But that fact that Trump will also enter office with a Republican Congress could certainly expedite things. Of course, under the Constitution, Congress writes laws, and the executive branch — through federal agencies like EPA — enacts regulations to make those laws a reality. So Congress can, of course, pass laws to change environmental regulations. But Freeman says lawmakers don’t always take that approach.

Changing the law to say [for example] ‘no more greenhouse gas regulation’ — that would be very hard for Congress to do. What Congress can do is basically just starve the agency, e.g. fund the agency, but no funds can be used for the purpose of climate change. Basically, that’s an indirect way of repealing a law.

And Congress has other tools in its toolbox besides its power over the budget. In the next few weeks, Freeman says she’ll be watching out for the use of something called the Congressional Review Act. This allows Congress to repeal any recently enacted regulations — basically anything put in place since June. But Freeman says there are some limits on the process.

The reality is Congress can only do one at a time. They can’t bundle all the rules — as of now they can pick and choose. [But] there are many bills called “regulatory reform bills.” That makes it sound like they’re not really doing anything important, but if one of these pass[es] allowing them to bundle rules, they literally could disapprove hundreds of them.

There are several versions of bills like these. One of them is called the Midnight Rules Relief Act. It likely wouldn’t survive a filibuster (you need 60 Senate votes to end debate and vote on a bill.) But if Senate Republicans under Mitch McConnell get rid of the filibuster, all bets are really off. That’s why, as Freeman puts it, she’s out of the prediction-making business these days.