Donald Trump signed another executive order last week and, no surprise, it was awful. This one aims to expand oil drilling off our coasts, in Arctic seas, and in marine sanctuaries. It also seeks to revoke safety regulations that were implemented after the Deepwater Horizon spill (which occurred exactly seven years and eight days prior to Trump’s order). I could spend the rest of this post recapping why Trump’s order would guarantee more disasters like Deepwater Horizon, while doing zilch to achieve U.S. energy independence. But, really, isn’t it already obvious that giving Big Oil free rein to sink more wells off our coasts and beaches is a bad idea?
So instead, let’s look at how this executive order epitomizes a different kind of bad ― a kind we’ve seen over and over from this administration: Bad as in ill-conceived. Bad as in ineffectual. And, perhaps most importantly, bad as in illegal. In a way, all those kinds of bad add up, potentially, to an odd sort of good ― because the worse these things are, the easier it is for the Sierra Club and our allies to fight back against them.
A fundamental weakness of Trump’s presidency is its deliberate, ideologically driven disconnection from what most Americans (including many Trump voters) actually want. For instance, most Americans, regardless of how they voted in the last election, want to see more investment in developing clean, renewable energy sources. And certainly, overwhelming majorities of us want our government to ensure that we have safe drinking water and clean air. We love our national parks and want to protect our public lands. Want to know what almost nobody wants? More offshore oil spills. Most people would agree that 589 offshore spills reported since 2001 is bad enough.
What’s more, offshore drilling is anathema to many state and local governments (including many that are headed by Republicans). That’s because of the threat drilling poses not just to the environment but also to local economies. Since 2015, municipal governments from New Jersey to Florida have passed more than 120 bipartisan resolutions opposing drilling in the Atlantic. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Democratic senators and environmental champions Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey introduced a bill this week to block Atlantic drilling. But did you know that ― on the same day that Trump signed his executive order ― two congressional Republicans (South Carolina’s Mark Sanford and New Jersey’s Frank LoBiondo) introduced a bill that would suspend offshore drilling and all related activities in the waters off the East Coast for the next decade?
Look, offshore drilling could be right up there with baseball and apple pie ― and the Sierra Club would still oppose it because of drilling’s threats to our coasts and climate. But the reality is that it’s not popular. People hate the idea. And that makes organizing resistance a lot easier. It’s partly because Trump’s policy aims are so at odds with what most Americans actually want that the movement to resist has such momentum. So much momentum, in fact, that we have a window to win legislative victories even with the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress.
What about ineffective (and illegal)? Like many of Trump’s executive orders, this one is largely for show. Trump has ordered his cabinet members to evaluate existing rules that govern offshore drilling and make recommendations for how they could be changed. Most of those rules, though, are the result of a long and, frankly, arduous process that can take years. In most cases, reversing them isn’t something that can be done overnight. Nor can it be done capriciously. That means we will have many opportunities, both in the court of public opinion and in federal court, to fight back. That’s a fight we’re in for the long haul ― or at least until we defeat Trump for good.
However, in the case of lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling in large parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans (and also the earlier lifting of a moratorium on federal coal-leasing in the West), Trump’s actions are more immediate. At the same time, though, they’re on shaky legal ground. Notice how aggravated Donald Trump gets when a federal judge blocks his plans? You’re going to be seeing a lot more of that.
Pat Gallagher is the director of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program and has been defending the environment in court since the Clinton administration. He says he’s never seen anything that compares with the outrageous, radical agenda that is streaming from the Trump White House. And yet he’s confident most of those attacks will fail for one basic reason: “Judges,” he says, “will not countenance lies. Alternative facts may work on Fox News. They may work in Congress. But they are not going to get past federal judges.” As an example, he points to the citizen suit that the Sierra Club and Environment Texas won last week against Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s old outfit (ExxonMobil). Exxon was fined $20 million for emitting more than 8 million pounds of hazardous chemicals and other contaminants from a refinery near Houston. Did we win that case in front of a “liberal” judge? Not in Texas we didn’t. The law is the law, facts are facts, and Donald Trump still hasn’t figured either of those things out.
All that being said, this is no time for complacency. The incompetence and overreach of the Trump administration may work to our advantage, but they don’t guarantee victory. That’s still going to take plenty of hard work, smart organizing, and relentless vigilance. The good news is that the Sierra Club is bigger and stronger than ever (we’ve now got 3 million members and supporters) and ready to rumble. Bring it on, Don.