State Attorneys General Are Waging a Climate Change Battle Against the Trump Administration

State attorneys general have brought more than 300 legal and regulatory battles against the Trump administration on the issue of climate change and environmental protections.

State attorneys general have brought more than 300 legal and regulatory battles against the Trump administration on the issue of climate change and environmental protections. Shutterstock


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In filing lawsuits against the Trump administration, Democratic state AGs have paid particular attention to both climate change and environmental protections.

Of all the state and local officials who regularly spar with the Trump administration—including governors, mayors, and even city council members—those with the greatest bite-to-bark ratio seem to be attorney generals. Democrats took the majority of attorney general seats in the 2018 midterms and have used their power as their states’ top lawyers to sue the Trump administration over a variety of policies, with a particular focus around environmental issues.

A new report from the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at the NYU School of Law analyzed the more than 300 environmental lawsuits, comments on pending rules, and testimonies before Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency that state attorneys general have filed since the start of the Trump administration. 

David Hayes, the executive director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, said that the number of actions is extraordinary. “This is because the Trump administration is quite extraordinary in terms of the breadth and depth of the rollbacks the administration is proposing,” he said. “The Obama administration triggered environmental suits from more conservative AGs led by Scott Pruitt, but we’re talking about dozens, not what we have now with hundreds.”

The attorneys general brought their legal challenges under six main categories, arguing the Trump administration has failed to confront climate change, pushed policies that will reduce air quality, weakened clean water protections, allowed the exploitation of public lands, rolled back clean energy policies and done nothing to protect communities from toxic chemicals.

The most actions have been brought over Democrats’ contention the administration has failed to confront climate change, focused around rolling back Obama administration regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the Obama administration had put in place a Clean Power Plan to lower emissions generated by coal and natural-gas fired power plants, which the EPA in 2017 announced it would halt. 

The Trump Administration also has sought to revoke California’s power to set its own emission standards for passenger cars and trucks, while stopping an Obama plan to raise federal standards. Both the EPA and Interior Department have also sought to kill regulations of methane emissions by oil and gas operations, the center’s report noted. 

EPA officials with the Trump administration have generally argued that their approach curbs unnecessary regulations. In the case of vehicle emissions, they have said that it doesn’t make sense to allow California to essentially set the national standard. 

With rollbacks of Obama-era regulations, Hayes said state attorneys general challenged Trump over the failure to enforce the planned emissions reductions, forcing the administration to develop their own regulations. That strategy has been a key in delaying actions that might further exacerbate climate change, he said. 

“It’s taken the administration a long time to develop and issue their own rules. A lot of it is still just proposals,” Hayes said. “AGs have been successful in holding off action that would undermine existing legal requirements, and will continue to fight to ensure replacement rules don’t get enacted.”

Several replacement rules are in litigation now. A group of 23 attorneys general are suing over the administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule guiding power plant emissions, for example, which replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. Michael Abboud, a spokesperson for the EPA, said in a statement that the agency is confident they will win the lawsuit. “EPA worked diligently to ensure we produced a solid rule, that we believe will be upheld in the courts,” he said.

The attorneys general in various cases filed against the administration have warned that a rollback of Obama-era rules will lead to 37% more emissions from the electric power sector, 100% more emissions from passenger cars and trucks, and 53% more emissions from the oil and gas sector. 

By contrast, the Republican Attorneys General Association has praised Trump’s approach to various rules. In February, for example, Trump proposed a replacement rule for the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule—a proposal that many local government leaders had complained was potentially too broad—that would reduce the number of waterways subject to federal regulation. “With this new proposal, states remain free to regulate their own natural resources,” said RAGA chair and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement. “Under President Trump, Republican attorneys general are restoring the rule of law and the principles of cooperative federalism.”

Hayes said that many Democratic AGs are likely strained by what they now feel is required of them. “This issues shouldn’t be partisan, and they haven’t always been that way,” he said. “The AG offices aren’t built for all out war on the federal government. There’s no joy in this work. They’re doing what they have to do.”

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said he wasn’t thrilled by the number of lawsuits he has had to be involved in. “State attorneys general take little joy in reaching the milestone of 300 legal actions in defense of the environment, but our hands have been forced by the Trump administration’s reckless rollbacks that are contrary to the mission and purpose of the nation’s environmental laws,” Frosh said in a statement. “We will continue to act whenever our natural resources and our communities are threatened, and when the administration ignores clear evidence and the law.”

The attorneys general have been largely successful in cases as they’ve played out so far, such as a victory in a case about ozone pollution that crosses state borders, the report notes. But Hayes said the most consequential battles, including the ones around not-yet-revealed environmental rules that will undoubtedly face lawsuits, are still to come. “The ultimate success or failure is in many cases yet to be seen,” he said.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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