For once, Washington was quiet this week. Lawmakers were out of town for the July 4 recess and President Donald Trump spent much of the time at his golf course in New Jersey. During the latter half of the week, the action picked up as Trump jetted off to the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, where he had his first in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Back stateside, GOP leaders continued to try to negotiate a compromise on healthcare between moderates and conservatives.
Given all that, it might seem as if little actual policymaking happened—but you’d be surprised at how much actually happened. The Trump administration continued to roll back Barack Obama’s legacy this week, especially on climate policies where agencies undertook a series of moves that benefit oil and gas companies and infuriated environmentalists. Elsewhere, the Department of Education gave for-profit colleges another win and the Pentagon delayed an Obama-era policy on transgender troops.
Here’s the fifth week of POLITICO’s ongoing series on how Trump is quietly changing policy in America:
1. A new era for the renewable fuel standard
The Renewable Fuel Standard is one of the biggest annual fights in energy policy, a bruising battle between oil and agriculture interests. Under Obama, the agriculture industry frequently came out ahead as the Environmental Protection Agency upped the volume of biofuels—mostly corn-based ethanol—that oil refiners are required to mix into their gasoline supply.
Those days may be over. On Wednesday, the EPA, under new Administrator Scott Pruitt, released its proposed Renewable Fuel Standard for 2018, which would leave the requirement for conventional biofuels unchanged at its 2017 level. But the EPA would reduce the requirement for advanced biofuels, the first ever reduction in volumes under the Renewable Fuel Standard. It’s a victory for oil and gas interests who praised the move but said it still did not go far enough. Biofuel producers slammed it.
Pruitt also signaled that he could undertake broader reforms to the Renewable Fuel Standard, saying the EPA will conduct a technical analysis to “inform a future rule” about the program and will be “assessing higher levels of ethanol free gasoline.” A new regulatory regime is well underway.
2. More oil and gas drilling on federal lands
Under Obama, oil and gas companies frequently criticized the administration for limiting drilling on federal lands, an effort that was praised by environmentalists as a way to keep oil and gas in the ground and reduce future greenhouse gas emissions.
On Thursday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took a step in the exact opposite direction when he issued a secretarial order directing the Bureau of Land Management to speed up the permitting process for oil and gas leases. Zinke wants the BLM to hold quarterly lease sales and to issue permits within 30 days. The bureaucratic move is a first step towards opening up more federal land to oil and gas drilling but, as Zinke said, nothing will change overnight. With oil prices depressed, many producers aren’t interested in drilling on federal land. The order won’t change those market forces.
3. Another big victory for for-profit colleges
A few weeks ago, the Department of Education targeted an Obama-era protection for students known as the “gainful employment” rule, which required colleges to meet certain standards or risk losing access to federal student loans. It was a big victory for for-profit colleges, which are disproportionately affected by the rule. But since the “gainful employment” rule was finalized in 2014, the Department would have to undertake a full rule-making process to rewrite it.
As of July 1, the rule required schools to disclose a range of information to prospective students, including completion rates and post-graduate earnings. But on Wednesday, the Department of Education issued a notice that it was extending the compliance date for those disclosures by a year, to July 1, 2018. In the meantime, schools must still disclose that information on their websites. The move is another victory for for-profit schools, which have found a much more welcome regulatory regime under new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
4. Trump takes another shot at Obama’s climate policy
Just a couple weeks after Trump won the presidential election last year, Obama took a major step to secure his climate legacy when he blocked any oil or gas drilling in most of the Arctic waters. The plan, released by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, guides offshore energy development from 2017 to 2022 and was a major victory for environmentalists, obstructing Trump’s pledge to expand offshore drilling.
On Monday, the Interior Department took the first step towards revising that five-year roadmap and opening the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet areas to oil and gas drilling. The BOEM issued a notice in the Federal Register seeking comments from the public on a replacement plan that would cover 2019 to 2024. Oil and gas groups praised the move as a necessary step to secure America’s energy future but critics said it would undermine U.S. efforts to fight climate change and put the Arctic waters at risk. Either way, changes won’t happen overnight: Zinke expects the rewrite to take two to three years.
In the meantime, offshore drilling in most of the Arctic will remain off limits. Trump cannot overturn Obama’s climate legacy that easily.
5. The Pentagon delays lifting the ban on transgender troops
In June 2016, the Obama administration announced that it would allow transgender troops to serve openly in the military, a move lauded by gay-rights groups and criticized by many Republicans who worried it could undermine the strength and stability of our armed forces.
The move was set to take effect on July 1—but late last Friday, the Department of Defense announced that it was delaying lifting the ban until January 1, 2018 to determine the impact on "the readiness and lethality of our forces." Some military experts are concerned that allowing transgender troops to serve openly would undermine unit cohesion and reduce the military’s effectiveness. Gay-rights advocates vigorously dispute that argument and slammed the Pentagons delay. But they are hopeful that it does signal a broader reversal of the Obama-era policy.