A central piece of President Trump’s executive order Tuesday nixes the federal government’s use of the obscure “social cost of carbon” calculation, ending an Obama-era experiment that put an official price tag on greenhouse gas emissions.
The metric, first established in 2010 by an interagency working group that consulted with scientists and others outside government, examined how carbon pollution would impact public health, food crops, infrastructure and a host of other parts of American life. The figure, which now stands at about $40 per ton of carbon, according to the latest federal figures, was a key way in which the Obama administration tried to financially justify its ambitious climate change agenda. The Environmental Protection Agency would, for example, claim that a given program, rule or regulation would save billions of dollars by cutting emissions, and it arrived at those estimates partly by using the social cost of carbon.
Major aspects of the EPA’s climate change work over the past eight years were axed by Mr. Trump on Tuesday. His wide-ranging executive order opened up federal lands to coal mining, began unraveling the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and officially canceled the social cost of carbon.
The very concept was controversial from the start. Critics have said the figure cannot be taken seriously because the cost of carbon is, as a factual matter, impossible to truly measure, and the supposed price can be manipulated to serve whatever regulation the administration was pushing at the time.
“The Trump administration’s decision to review the social cost of carbon is a victory for anyone who favors sound rule-making,” Thomas Pyle, president of the conservative American Energy Alliance, said in a statement Tuesday. “The social cost of carbon is an arbitrary and speculative metric that should never have been used to shape federal energy policy.”
Mr. Trump didn’t directly address the social cost of carbon during his remarks Tuesday at EPA headquarters in Washington, but a senior White House official said that “those estimates will no longer stand” as a result of the president’s actions.
It’s unclear whether the administration will seek to come up with its own revised social cost of carbon estimates. Based on other moves on the energy and environmental front, it seems likely the White House and EPA will abandon the idea altogether.
More broadly, Mr. Trump cast his host of actions Tuesday as both a major step forward for the economy and as a removal of shackles from the energy sector. Officials also declared that the executive order represents the formal end of the “war on coal” that had become a hallmark of the Obama administration’s environmental policies.
“The action I’m taking today will eliminate federal overreach, restore economic freedom and allow our companies and our workers to thrive, compete and succeed on a level playing field for the first time in a long time,” Mr. Trump said.
Vice President Mike Pence declared that “the war on coal is over” as a result of Tuesday’s steps.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill say the actions will endanger public health and stop much of the progress that was made over the past eight years in fighting climate chance. They also claim that the White House has made clear — both by Tuesday’s moves and other steps such as the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline — that it will do the bidding of the oil-and-gas industry.
“Simply put, the Trump administration has put the health of the American people and the future of our planet on the back burner, all for the sake of lining the pockets of big oil and extreme-right special interests,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a statement.
On the social cost of carbon in particular, those who support the concept say the government is now poised to cast aside a perfectly reasonable method of determining how emissions can quite literally cost the country money.
“America’s communities and businesses are already bearing the rising costs of extreme weather, sea level rise and other climate impacts, all of which will intensify with more global warming,” said Bob Perciasepe, former deputy administrator at the EPA and now the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
“The social cost of carbon is a sensible tool to prudently factor those very real economic costs into government decision-making. Ignoring those costs won’t make them go away,” he continued.
Few dispute the idea there are costs to pollution, but Republican leaders in Congress say the social cost of carbon was fatally flawed simply because it’s impossible to know how much money a regulation will save 15 years or longer into the future.
The social cost of carbon “for years has relied on faulty accounting metrics to substantiate regulations with little known benefit,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican. “Rolling back this regulation will result in immediate economic gains and preclude agencies from justifying expensive rules with false cost-benefit analyses.”