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White House Leaning Toward Exiting Paris Agreement By Next Week, Sources Say

In the tug-of-war over the historic climate agreement, EPA chief Scott Pruitt and chief strategist Steve Bannon appear to be winning.

03/05/2017 7:53 AM AEST | Updated 04/05/2017 2:45 AM AEST

President Donald Trump may pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change as early as next week, sources with knowledge of the plans told HuffPost on Tuesday.

The historic agreement between 195 countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change, reached in December 2015, is the first global climate accord to include the U.S. and China, the world’s top polluters. While Trump promised to withdraw from the agreement right after assuming office, that hasn’t yet transpired. What to do about the Paris Agreement has reportedly divided the administration, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka wanting to renegotiate the U.S. terms, while Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and chief strategist Steve Bannon argue to pull out.

White House lawyers drafted a memo following a meeting last Thursday that argued that the administration could face legal blowback in U.S. courts if it moves to weaken the country’s emissions goals under the agreement. White House advisers convened lawyers from the Department of Justice, EPA and State Department on Monday to discuss the legal arguments. The president said over the weekend that he would make a decision on the agreement in the next two weeks.

The administration has yet to take a final decision, sources said. The White House declined to comment. 

Remaining in the Paris Agreement could strengthen environmental lawsuits against the White House over its climate agenda, such as the rollback of the Clean Power Plan, the sweeping Obama-era regulation to cut emissions from the utility sector, the lawyers argued, according to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting.

A source in the State Department said a document circulating in the agency this week contained legal justifications for a U.S. exit from the Paris Agreement. The document, obtained by HuffPost, seemed to originate from State’s legal office, according to the source, and almost immediately caused anxiety among State staff who work on climate issues. “People were calling around, asking if it was real or fake,” said the source, who requested anonymity in order to discuss internal agency documents.

The Paris Agreement allows for countries to pull out three years after the accord takes effect, meaning the Trump administration could officially withdraw on Nov. 9, 2019, the memo says. The withdrawal would be complete one year later. 

“While formal withdrawal could not be initiated until November 2019, in effect the United States could announce a plan to withdraw and reduce or cease participation in Paris Agreement activity earlier,” the memo reads. “We would not have any Paris Agreement reporting requirements to fulfill in the meantime, as the first reports under the Paris Agreement reporting system are not expected to need to be submitted until at least 2021 or 2022.”

Any push to exit the agreement sooner “would be inconsistent with international law and would not be accepted internationally,” it said. 

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to "cancel" the Paris Agreement.

The Trump administration’s justification for leaving the agreement hinges on its interpretation of one sentence of the Paris Agreement that reads: “A party may at any time adjust its existing nationally determined contribution [NDC] with a view to enhancing its level of ambition.” Those who want to withdraw completely from the agreement appear to be arguing that this is meant only to give countries the freedom to make more aggressive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, not to scale back the cuts; while those who want to keep the accord and some legal experts say the clause could allow the administration simply to dial back the U.S. commitment.

“The bottom line is this: If the administration sets out to renegotiate Paris and either cannot do so or fails to achieve the objective they have in mind, they can always opt out at that point,” Scott Segal of Bracewell LLP, said in a report published Monday by E&E News, an environment and energy news service. “Nothing is risked by trying to get a better deal at the outset.”

There has been a simmering tension in the Trump administration over the Paris Agreement. Trump campaigned on the pledge he would pull out ― or at least, renegotiate ― the deal. But then he selected as his secretary of state Tillerson, who supports staying in the deal, as does Ivanka Trump, reportedly. Trump’s virulently anti-climate-regulation EPA administrator, Pruitt, supports leaving the deal, as does Bannon ― who came to the White House from a website that has actively campaigned to kill the Paris accord.

Under the Paris Agreement, the United States pledged to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent of 2005 levels by 2025. The Obama administration rolled out a series of regulations known as the Climate Action Plan that would put the country on a path to meeting that goal. Trump recently directed Pruitt to begin unwinding the Obama administration’s power plant regulations, and the administration has also moved to roll back rules for automobile emissions ― which would almost assuredly prevent the U.S. from meeting its Paris commitment even if it doesn’t formally withdraw.

“Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement would turn America from a global climate leader into a global climate deadbeat,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace U.S., said in a statement to HuffPost. “The world has already resolved to act on climate, the renewable energy industry is growing exponentially, and people all over the globe are becoming part of the clean energy future.” 

Read the full memo below: 

This article has been updated to include that the White House has declined to comment and with details from the memo and comment from Leonard. 

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