The column you’re reading began its life last week with an unsavory, if relatively straightforward, goal: Explore the disastrous environmental ramifications of president-elect Donald Trump’s selection of Oklahoma’s attorney general—and oil-and-gas industry bestie—Scott Pruitt as the next head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
No sooner had I gotten started when news broke of another Trump pick: Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, for secretary of state, the government’s top diplomatic post. This Cabinet selection was so mind-blowing in its utter wrongness, on almost every imaginable level, that I instantly rethought the original structure of my piece. These two peas in a petrochemical pod definitely needed to be sharing the spotlight.
Then rumors began filtering in that Trump was nearing his final decision on our nation’s next secretary of energy. I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t misreading the headlines. Alas, it really was true: Trump was picking former Texas governor Rick Perry—late of one of the most woebegone presidential campaigns in modern history, not to mention Dancing with the Stars. That our next president wants his energy secretary to be the guy who once bragged about how he’d abolish the agency (or would have bragged about it, if he’d remembered its name) says a lot about the future of our national energy policy. Once again, my column was thrown into structural turmoil.
Just this morning, I was back on track, cruising right along, ready to frame these three picks as a new high-water mark in Cabinet-making depravity, the trifecta of environmental nihilism. And then I heard that sources were reporting Trump had settled on U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke for secretary of the interior. In support of the nomination, a Trump spokesperson had this to say: “Congressman Zinke believes we need to find a way to cut through bureaucracy to ensure our nation’s parks, forests, and other public areas are properly maintained and used effectively.” (The italics are mine. The nervousness they elicit, on the other hand, is—or ought to be—everyone’s.)
Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the Four Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse.
That I kept having to rework this column—three do-overs in less than a week!—is itself a bone-chilling sign of just how eager president-elect Trump is to give the oil and gas industry everything it could ever ask for, and more. Taken together, these appointments constitute a preinaugural Christmas present to all those climate deniers and fossil fuel dead-enders who helped nudge him over the electoral finish line. He may be willing to take the occasional meeting with Al Gore, and his high-profile daughter may even publicly flirt with reasonableness on climate change from time to time, but make no mistake: These appointments are the signal buried within any semi-hopeful noise that you may have heard.
And here’s the signal’s message: The lands and waters of the United States of America are once again open for business, assuming your business happens to be sucking massive amounts of hydrocarbon out of the ground for the purposes of burning and emitting our way toward an uninhabitable planet.
As I type, more rumors are circulating—although these reports, I’m happy to say, offer some small glimmer of hope. One of them is that a number of Republican senators are privately grumbling about the Tillerson appointment, citing his bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his acceptance of the Russian Order of Friendship award in 2013. In case you haven’t heard, the incoming administration isn’t exactly looking for more coverage of the many, um, surprising links between the Kremlin and the newly ascendant GOP. The mere fact that Tillerson is experiencing any intraparty turbulence at all, as opposed to a perfectly smooth ride into Foggy Bottom, may be a sign that he’s not a shoo-in.
The other rumor is that President Obama is preparing, as in right now, to wield his executive power in order to permanently ban drilling in U.S. waters off the Atlantic and Arctic coasts. Thanks to a somewhat obscure clause embedded deep within the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act—you are familiar with the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, aren’t you?—a sitting president has the authority to prohibit the leasing of offshore areas in such a way that future presidents cannot rescind it. If he chooses to avail himself of this option, it will be the best thing—and perhaps the only thing—that Obama can do to save these vulnerable areas from the rapaciousness of the Four Horsemen and their oil industry minions.
Were that to happen—and were the Senate to also say nyet to a Russia-backed oil executive becoming our top diplomat—it just might buy environmentalists enough time to take a deep breath, collect our energy, and gear up for the next fight. Because rest assured, there will be a next fight. And a next one. And a next one.
These four men could make for a very busy four years.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.