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Climate skeptics and coal boosters gather to cheer Trump's energy agenda — and hold his feet to the fire

  • Conservatives gathered at the Heartland Institute's America First Energy Conference to celebrate President Trump's deregulation agenda.
  • The event was also intended to take stock of Trump's progress and plot a course to further scale back climate change programs and shrink the EPA.
  • The organized and highly dedicated corner of conservatism is prepared to push back on Trump in the coming years if they sense he is faltering.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delivers a video message during the Heartland Institute’s America First Energy Conference in Houston, Texas.
Tom DiChristopher | CNBC
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delivers a video message during the Heartland Institute’s America First Energy Conference in Houston, Texas.

HOUSTON — Clips of President Donald Trump extolling the virtues of fossil fuels played over a bed of soaring music, in the well-appointed hotel ballroom, as images of coal miners and the Statue of Liberty flashed across the screen.

When the video came to a close, the audience erupted in applause and the conservative energy conference began.

But over the next 12 hours of panels and speeches, one thing quickly became clear: The organizers and audience were not satisfied with the nation's flight from the frontlines of climate change under Trump. They want him to retreat much further, much faster.

The movement, deeply skeptical of climate change and influential in the White House, reaffirmed its vow to keep pressure on the president to finish dismantling his predecessor's legacy and reshape the Environmental Protection Agency.

About 250 members of the movement last week attended the conservative Heartland Institute's America First Energy Conference, named for Trump's broad energy plan. They gathered to celebrate and take stock of Trump's progress rolling back Obama-era regulations and his blueprint for achieving U.S. "energy dominance."

"We need to support everything that the Trump administration is doing that's moving toward less regulation and more freedom, and we need to oppose them when they start going bad and the swamp starts taking over." -Myron Ebell, former leader of President Trump's EPA transition team

The conference, preceded by a day of closed-door strategy sessions, offered a glimpse into an organized and highly dedicated corner of conservatism that is committed to shrinking the EPA, demolishing the foundations of greenhouse gas regulations and minimizing the government's efforts to combat climate change wherever possible.

At the movement's center are think tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which have for years operated on the margins of the right. Both have tirelessly worked to undermine the consensus among most climate scientists that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are the primary reason the Earth's climate is changing and global temperatures are at record highs.

In a sign of the groups' growing influence, the Interior Department's counselor for energy policy, Vincent DeVito, delivered the keynote speech. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who asked Heartland to suggest skeptics for a debate on climate change, surprised the crowd with a video address.

Four of the conference panelists were members of Trump's EPA transition team.

In the Trump administration, these groups see their best opportunity for embedding their views into U.S. policy.

"In just a few short months, President Trump and his team have rolled back years — years — of Obama-era regulations attacking fossil fuels," Heartland President Tim Huelskamp, a Republican former congressman from Kansas, said in his opening address. "Trump and his team have pushed back on decades of anti-energy propaganda masquerading as sound science."

Yet the movement remains worried the president, a populist who has called global warming a hoax, will gravitate toward establishment Republicans and special interests.

While they cheer Trump's vow to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, they lament the nation remains part of the underlying United Nations treaty to combat climate change.

They applaud Trump for lifting President Barack Obama's moratorium on federal coal leasing and scrapping his landmark Clean Power Plan. But they also criticize his administration for refusing to overhaul a biofuels program or to overturn the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases endanger the American public.

"This is a great moment. Everybody should savor it and keep pushing," said Myron Ebell, who led Trump's EPA transition team. "We need to support everything that the Trump administration is doing that's moving toward less regulation and more freedom, and we need to oppose them when they start going bad and the swamp starts taking over."

Ebell, who is director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, spoke on a panel reforming the EPA. He was pleased, so far, but warned "President Trump has allowed some parts of the swamp already to invade parts of his administration."

Two big objectives

Perhaps the biggest goal is overturning the EPA's endangerment finding, a 2009 determination that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling that classifies greenhouse gases as pollutants obligates the EPA to regulate them.

Conservatives believe rescinding the endangerment finding is the key to further deregulation and worry rollbacks currently underway will stall unless EPA overturns the determination.

Pruitt has so far declined to take up the issue, which would require the EPA to challenge the scientific evidence the agency marshaled before he assumed office. The Heartland Institute dedicated a conference panel to discussing pathways that would make it possible for Pruitt to scrap the finding.

Another objective that loomed large over the conference was shrinking the EPA's footprint.

Heartland proposes replacing the EPA with a committee that represents the 50 state-level agencies responsible for environmental protection within their borders. David Stevenson, another former EPA transition team member, advocates closing the EPA's 10 regional offices, which would allow the agency to lay off thousands of employees.

Both efforts appear unlikely. The Trump administration proposed slashing the EPA's budget by nearly a third, but Congress has largely shielded the agency, which supports jobs and economic activity at the state and local level.

But the movement is also focused on measures that would handcuff the EPA in its current form.

Stevenson, a fellow at the free market think tank Caesar Rodney Institute, says the EPA should no longer seek to improve air quality and instead focus on maintaining the current quality. He claims bureaucrats want to identify new pollutants to regulate so they can maintain the status quo.

Steve Milloy, an author who runs the climate denial website junkscience.com, laid out an eight-point plan to reform the EPA. His proposals include requiring Congressional approval and judicial review of major EPA regulations.

Milloy, also an EPA transition team member, lauded Pruitt's decision to ban scientists who receive EPA grants from serving on the agency's science advisory panels. Critics contend the rule was engineered to sweep away qualified scientists and clear spots for industry-friendly members that Pruitt has appointed to the boards.

Conservatives' work not done

In the coming years, the movement will push Trump to completely scrap fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles, which the president has only sought to scale back. It also wants to wipe out subsidies for renewable energy that the Republican tax plan merely seeks to reduce.

Conservatives will continue efforts to get rid of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires oil refiners and importers to blend biofuels like ethanol into gasoline and diesel. Under pressure from agriculture state lawmakers, the EPA under Trump has kept it in place.

The Heartland Institute also wants the White House to establish a council on climate change that would conduct a review to justify "dramatically" reducing government funding for climate change research. They would also require the remaining funds to be split evenly for studying man-made and naturally occurring climate change.

Myron Ebell
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Myron Ebell

Ebell, the former Trump EPA transition leader, said it is crucial to get Congress to codify these objectives into law. Otherwise, Trump could have his deregulatory agenda swept aside by a hostile successor wielding executive power — just like Obama is seeing his climate initiatives undone.

In the past, conservatives have been too quick to declare success once a Republican takes the Oval Office, he said.

"The environmental movement will get 95 percent of what they want from an administration and they'll complain and say, we're being sold out because we didn't get 100 percent," Ebell said during the conference.

"We get 50 percent of what we want and we say thank you. We shouldn't do that."

At the close of the session, Ebell said he wanted to end on an upbeat note. He praised Trump for doing what the last two Republican presidents refused to do: tell the world that the United States is done talking about climate change.

The crowd broke out into applause. As the clapping died down, an audience member yelled from the back of the room, "Myron for president!"

This is the first in a series of reports from CNBC on the growing influence of climate skeptics on environmental and energy policy under the Trump administration.