28 july 2017

Trump admin will still report U.S. emissions to world body

Zack Colman and Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporters, Friday, July 28, 2017

The Trump administration will continue reporting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

The Trump administration will honor its treaty obligation to provide U.S. greenhouse emissions data to the United Nations despite the president's decision to leave the Paris Agreement, administration officials said.

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change requires wealthy countries to report their emissions by April 15 each year, and the Trump administration met that deadline this spring. It has also asked Congress for $8.5 million to complete the task in fiscal 2018, and an administration official confirmed to E&E News that support for the inventory would continue.

Dina Kruger, who directed the Climate Change Division at U.S. EPA in the early Obama years, said some of her former colleagues wondered initially if the inventory would fall victim to the new administration's anti-climate action agenda, but they got outside help.

"The folks at EPA were nervous that [EPA Administration Scott] Pruitt and the people around him would not want the inventory, but what ended up happening was that environmental groups and a number of industries sent comments into EPA and said, 'We really want the inventory,'" she said. "Folks at EPA felt like that had been very helpful."

The American Gas Association was particularly persuasive, she said. The trade group's website touts the inventory to show that methane leakage from natural gas distribution systems declined 75 percent from 1990 to 2015.

The administration's continued commitment to the emissions report comes after President Trump announced on June 1 that the United States would depart the 2015 climate deal. And it comes amid plans to scrap emissions-reduction and financial commitments made by the previous administration. The Paris pullout could be complete by November 2020.

Experts said the United States wouldn't have trouble meeting the UNFCCC requirements, even amid a reorganization at the State Department and buyouts at EPA.

EPA, which is primarily responsible for the inventory, has been completing the task every year since the 1990s.

"They'll be able to deliver a pretty good greenhouse gas inventory because of that wealth of experience," said Kate Larsen, a former State Department official now at the Rhodium Group. "If key staffers leave, I think some of the institutional knowledge might go with them, and that might be a challenge."

Kruger estimated that fewer than 10 people at EPA's Office of Atmospheric Programs are primarily responsible for the report, which the State Department then sends on to the U.N. body. Staffers use well-established methodologies for gathering and reporting data on heat-trapping emissions from economic sectors, including energy, transportation and industrial processes.

But the full effect of the Trump White House's proposed one-third cuts for both EPA and foreign aid budgets is not known. The Office of Atmospheric Programs would endure a more severe cut of 70 percent, down to $33.7 million, under Trump's proposed budget. Larsen said a weaker budget could hamper EPA's efforts to improve the accuracy of the data it shares with the international community. That might happen if budget cuts limit outreach to industry and other stakeholders, particularly in areas like methane from oil and gas that are not fully studied.

The full effect of buyouts at EPA has not yet been seen. At State, a report outlining Secretary Rex Tillerson's plans to overhaul his department is due to be submitted to the White House Office of Management and Budget by Sept. 15.

"It's certainly possible that they could put less effort into the program — we ran a really excellent program that got more and more accurate and more user-friendly every year, for example," former EPA air chief Janet McCabe said. She added that the EPA staff also gathers information on carbon sinks from other agencies, including the Department of Agriculture.
Can CO2 data be used in court?

In addition to the annual reports, rich countries are also required to submit biennially on steps they're taking to limit emissions and provide finance and technology to poor countries. The United States submitted its last report in 2016, and the next would be due in 2018. Wealthy countries are also required to provide periodic information on other issues. It's unclear how the Trump team will respond to those requirements.

If Trump gets a second term and completes the Paris exit, he wouldn't need to conduct biennial reviews. That's because those are performed under the Cancun Agreements and run through 2020. Paris succeeds it, but the United States would no longer be a party to it.

Transparency of data that show the international community "we're moving in the right direction" would "be helpful" even if the United States recedes to the background on climate, said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

But he noted those annual reports are static, giving a retrospective marker of U.S. emissions. By leaving Paris, the United States wouldn't be obligated to give updates about its progress toward meeting its out-year emissions targets as it currently does through biennial reports, Diringer said.

All that said, the most significant damage may come from the ability to measure other nations' emissions. The potential decimation of climate science programs at NOAA and NASA, along with vacancies at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, could hamstring valuable programs, said Andrew Light, a former State Department climate change adviser in the Obama administration.

"Other parties have to be able to scrutinize that and know that that's accurate," Light said. "I think it's even a bigger problem if we lose our understanding of what other countries are doing."

That the Trump administration will continue reporting its emissions, however, opens it to potential legal issues, international environmental law experts argued. That's because they'll still provide a breathing example of progress — or lack thereof — on emissions.

If emissions tick upward, the data submitted as part of the UNFCCC process could be used to show the administration is violating the Clean Air Act, Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, told E&E News. That's because the data would demonstrate a flouting of the endangerment finding, he said.

The data also could affect ongoing court cases, such as Juliana v. United States, in which children are suing the Trump administration for not pursuing carbon mitigation aggressively enough, noted David Hunter, a environmental law professor at the American University Washington College of Law. While that data might be gleaned in different ways, Hunter said in an email, "The U.S. likely wouldn't be able to challenge the reliability of this data in court because it is an official submission."

Others are less convinced emissions reporting would handcuff the Trump EPA because of the deference given to the agency to interpret statute.

"If an administration, like the current one, adopts a more straightforward interpretation of the statute in response to a petition demanding that it regulate utility emissions, a court would have little choice but to defer to that interpretation," Andrew Grossman, an attorney at BakerHostetler, said in an email.

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