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Politics

How Green Groups Are Prepping for Trump Redux

A peek inside the playbooks of four climate advocacy orgs.

Trump steamrolling through a forest.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

A new Trump administration’s climate agenda will be much the same as the old one.

Project 2025, the 920-page instruction manual for an incoming Republican administration from the conservative Heritage Foundation, calls for eliminating the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, its Loan Programs Office, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) — and so did its 2017 equivalent. Every Trump budget included cuts to these programs. The Trump administration rewrote emissions standards, attempted to prevent states from enforcing more stringent guidance, and reduced the social cost of carbon. Project 2025 outlines most of these same changes and more.

Environmental and climate-focused groups played a key role in fighting those climate policies last time around. Along with state attorneys general, these groups filed lawsuits against regulatory changes and worked with business groups to build support for federal action on climate. The game plan, say people working for some of those same climate advocacy groups today, would be much the same for round two.

At the same time, though, the political questions have grown more complex, even for programs once considered ideologically neutral. If Republicans control one or both houses of Congress, in addition to the White House, how will climate advocates convince Republican lawmakers even to preserve existing law, let alone continue advancing a decarbonization agenda?

After talking with four different climate-focused groups — the Sierra Club, Evergreen Action, Third Way, and the Energy Futures Initiative Foundation, each of which has a different approach to clean energy advocacy — I was left with four takeaways for how they’ll attempt to handle a second Trump administration.

1) Planning for a second Trump administration means, in part, staying focused on the present

No organization I contacted provided a specific plan for a second Trump administration. But Sierra Club, Evergreen, and Third Way all said they’re working on dual tracks, charting a course to continue supporting the Biden administration’s climate policy both now, as the administration scrambles to finalize regulations, and under a potential second term from either Biden or Trump.

“There’s certainly planning going on amongst enviros, as there always is around these times, of what the next four years could look like,” both for a Biden and for a Trump presidency, Patrick Drupp, Sierra Club's director of climate policy, told me. “We should be prepared that every single thing we liked and praised in [the Biden] administration would come under fire” in the event of a Trump victory, he added.

A second Trump administration would, for instance, almost certainly attempt to scale back new rules on soot pollution, mercury and air toxics standards at power plants, and the recently tightened limits on tailpipe emissions, Drupp said — effectively “anything at EPA.”

Drupp’s team is working to game out what policies and rollbacks might come first. If and when they happen, the Sierra Club will swing into action to explain “what it means when you roll back these regulations,” he said. “They have important real-life consequences for folks.” Sierra Cub also has a whole legal team separate from Drupp’s policy shop, and he said his colleagues would very likely sue to block efforts like these, as well.

Evergreen will make its case against Trump — i.e. “explain why bad ideas are bad,” as Craig Segall, vice president at Evergreen Action, a climate policy and advocacy offshoot of Jay Inslee’s 2020 presidential campaign, put it to me.

“This is an election that matters on geologic timescales,” Segall said. “It’s our job to put forward that case — and also to talk about how the Biden administration and the states can and should do better in a second term.” Segall pointed to Michigan’s new clean energy standard as an example of aggressive state policy that would be difficult for a Trump administration to undermine. And he highlighted Georgia as a state less ideologically interested in climate change but still benefiting from clean power investment.

2) The IRA is not Obamacare

Then there’s the Inflation Reduction Act. Project 2025’s chapter on the Department of Energy lists repealing IRA as its first specific policy goal. While the IRA has helped drive the largest buildout of clean energy in American history, as of 2023, most Americans hadn’t heard of it, according to a Heatmap poll.

Without the IRA, growth in renewables would continue, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Third Way’s senior director of domestic policy for climate and energy, told me. But it wouldn’t continue at the same pace, putting the U.S. behind on emissions reductions targets and limiting its ability to keep up in a global competition to manufacture clean energy technology.

The IRA’s success — and survival — could depend on the extent to which Republican lawmakers are willing to quietly embrace it, as Emily Pontecorvo pointed out last summer. With significant investments flowing to the Republican-led Battery Belt states, one line of argument would posit that red state politicians have incentives to protect economic activity in their district.

Members of Congress might be enthusiastic about budget cuts in the abstract, but when those budget cuts come to their districts, those members lose interest, argued David Ellis, a senior vice president of policy and outreach at the Energy Futures Initiative Foundation. Given how much the uptake of IRA’s tax credits has outpaced initial projections, Ellis described it as among the most immediately impactful pieces of legislation passed in recent memory. That will make it “very hard to undo,” he said.

There are reasons to think that line of reasoning might not hold up — a University of Texas at Austin study showed that Texas state senators with renewable energy investment in their districts were no more likely to support pro-renewables policy than senators without. Republicans will likely try to overturn the IRA regardless of the political implications, Drupp said. “How long did it take before Republicans stopped trying to overturn Obamacare?” he said. “I think it's similar.”

It took until 2017, seven years after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, for that legislation to achieve majority approval in tracking polls. That uptick in sentiment came as Congress very nearly repealed the law, before a handful of Republican senators famously squashed those efforts.

But the ACA wasn’t just popular because Republicans were trying to repeal it. Its approval ratings also came from the fact that Americans were feeling the impact of the law, Sarah Kliff and Dylan Scott argued for Vox in 2017.

The analogy between the IRA and the ACA is imperfect, Fitzpatrick said. Still, it underscores the basic political principle at play. If more Americans can understand the benefits the IRA offers them, they’ll be more hesitant to overturn it.

“For that comparison to hold, the average American person, family, business owner has to be able to see a real impact on the things they care most about,” Fitzpatrick said. If Americans can understand the pocketbook and energy reliability impacts of the IRA in addition to its impact on climate, that could put it off-limits.

Third Way is trying to emphasize to Democrats that they, in turn, need to emphasize the benefits of the IRA when they talk to voters. “We also need to make sure that advocates, people who are influential in communities across the country, understand not just that this isn't just a lefty priority,” Fiztpatrick said, noting Third Way’s work with educational organizations aimed at grassroots audiences. “This isn't just about climate change. There are benefits that are reaching them in their communities.”

Along with labor groups, business will also prove to be another key constituency in any fight over the IRA, Segall told me. IRA repeal is “clearly a high priority” for some conservative lawmakers — but “there are now billion-dollar industries that are correctly reckoning they have to decarbonize to stay competitive,” he said. Nissan and General Motors, for instance, told the Financial Times that the end of the IRA might spell trouble for their American electric vehicle businesses.

3) Some things are in Congress’s hands

The president cannot unilaterally eliminate either a department or a Congressionally authorized office within a department. But Congress can.

Republicans controlled at least one house of Congress for all four years of the Trump administration, and yet proposed cuts to EERE, ARPA-E, and other climate-focused offices in the Department of Energy never came to fruition. In 2017, six Senate Republicans — including Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Sen. Lamar Alexander, then chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for DOE — wrote a letter to express their support for the programs.

“Energy investment across the board came out of the first Trump administration, if not unscathed, certainly less damaged than other parts of the government,” Ellis said.

Next time around, Project 2025 calls for eliminating the DOE’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, its Office of State and Community Energy Programs, ARPA-E, the Office of Grid Deployment, and its loan program, and EERE. But just because things didn’t go according to plan last time doesn’t mean those programs are safe.

Ellis told me that Congressional Republicans are now much more beholden to the Trump platform than they were in 2017. “The early signs are not good that a Republican Congress would do anything to restrain Donald Trump, given the fact that they're falling in lockstep behind him,” he said. That leaves the offices that have served as incubators and provided funding for nascent clean energy technologies and projects more vulnerable than before.

Sen. Alexander retired in 2021. The new ranking Republican on the subcommittee that handles DOE appropriations is Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, who has criticized the Biden administration’s energy policy but has not called loudly for cuts.

Fitzpatrick said he’s hopeful that a bipartisan group of lawmakers will step in to prevent anything drastic — but he noted that could be more challenging given what he described as the “ideological bent” Trump has projected onto research and development funding for energy, which had previously enjoyed consistent bipartisan support. One example: The Energy Act of 2020, which Ellis described as a “smorgasboard of bipartisan energy innovation efforts,” which passed under Trump.

Third Way, he noted, will look to educate a wide range of policymakers — key appropriators included — on the benefits of various DOE programs.

Even if Congress holds budgets relatively stable, a Trump DOE will have bureaucratic levers to pull to slow the work, both Fitzpatrick and Drupp said. That could mean allowing workforce attrition, sitting on reports, gumming up the process of offshore wind approvals, rubber-stamping new fossil fuel infrastructure, failing to conduct research directed by appropriations, or slowing the pace of loans.

A Trump administration could also wipe out hallmark Biden policies by executive order, such as the Justice40 initiative to bring 40% of the benefits of federal climate and clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities, Ellis added. (Project 2025 does not call for its elimination, but calls it an “innocuous”-sounding program that runs the risk of politicizing energy.)

4) Green groups will have to share the load

Project 2025 lays out a long list of changes for the Environmental Protection Agency: Pausing any research contract worth over $100,000, closing the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, preventing California from enforcing emissions restrictions on greenhouse gasses, and making it easier for the agency to approve pesticides.

Many more regulations — surrounding ozone and particulate pollution, mercury and air toxin pollution, heavy duty truck emission standards — could be rolled back or changed, said Drupp.

“It becomes hard when everything you love and care about is under attack,” he told me. “How do you prioritize that?” Collaboration will prove critical, Drupp noted — different organizations will attempt to figure out how best to allocate their resources.

During the first Trump administration, the “big greens,” community groups, and dozens of states filed lawsuits that helped stifle regulatory changes, Segall pointed out. The length of the regulatory process will extend the time horizon of any possible regulatory change. Although the Trump administration announced its intent to repeal the Clean Power Plan in 2017, it failed to unveil a new plan before 2019. That plan, in turn, remained tied up in court until one day before Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Green
Will Kubzansky profile image

Will Kubzansky

Will is an intern at Heatmap from Washington, D.C. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he interned at the Wisconsin State Journal and National Journal.

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