As the West Burns, the Trump Administration Races to Demolish Environmental Protections

Polluters and their agents in government want to finalize as many environmental rollbacks as possible before the presidential election.

Trump visits Skyway Villa Mobile Home Park during his visit of the Camp Fire in Paradise.
Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, FEMA Director Brock Long, President Donald Trump, Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, and Gov. Jerry Brown tour the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 17, 2018. Photo: Paul Kitagaki Jr.-Pool/Getty Images

As wildfires destroy millions of acres in California, Oregon, and Washington, and an unprecedented series of hurricanes cause historic flooding in the South, leaving parts of the region uninhabitable, the Trump administration has been racing to reverse rules designed to prevent exactly these kinds of climate disasters.

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has presided over the rollback of more environmental rules and regulations than any other president. The result has been that, even as climate change is on track to soon force millions of Americans from their homes and eventually heat the Earth to temperatures not seen for 34 million years, the leader of the country that bears more responsibility for the climate change than any other has doubled down on the decimation of efforts meant to combat both pollution and the climate crisis.

“The Trump administration is the first in the history of the agency to devote itself so relentlessly to a rollback agenda without even a pretense of meaningfully reducing environmental pollution,” said John Walke, an attorney and senior adviser to the NRDC Action Fund.

Starting with his choice of Scott Pruitt, a climate denier whose rise through Oklahoma politics was fueled by the oil and gas industry, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has has signaled his disregard for the climate and public health throughout his time in office. While Trump has called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and a “con,” federal agencies under him have taken countless actions — from the removal of information about climate change on the EPA website to the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement; the retooling of models used by the U.S. Geological Survey; and the cancellation of NASA’s carbon monitoring program — that set back the effort to address the climate crisis, and ultimately endanger the environment.

In recent months, the pace of these assaults has quickened. The frenzied efforts of federal agencies during the last months before a presidential election are often referred to as “midnight regulation.” But the work the Trump administration has recently been hurrying to complete would be more accurately described as “midnight deregulation.”

A sign with the words "Trump digs coal" can be seen on a factory building .

A sign with the words “Trump Digs Coal” can be seen on a factory building in a coal mining area in Hazleton, Penn., on Feb. 2, 2017.

Photo: Maren Hennemuth/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

Protections Obliterated

As soon as he entered office, Trump began the environmental reversals that will likely be the most enduring legacy of his administration. In March 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency signaled that it would not complete the planned ban of a neurotoxic pesticide called chlorpyrifos. The decision came after consulting closely with industry groups and after the Dow Chemical Company, which makes the pesticide, donated $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee. The Trump EPA has since completed dozens of other environmental rollbacks, including gutting the Clean Water Act; weakening restrictions on facilities that emit toxic air pollution; scrapping a rule that required mining companies to set aside money to cover the costs of cleaning up pollution; rewriting the National Environmental Policy Act so that it no longer requires government to consider the cumulative environmental impacts of major federal projects on communities; and ensuring that the coal industry is now able to dump mining waste in streams.

Among the recently finalized actions that will have devastating and long-lasting climate consequences are the rescinding of limits on methane emissions during oil and gas production and processing. Methane is a climate pollutant that traps over 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide in a 20-year period, and the U.S. is already releasing way too much of it. The rollback of methane rules, which was finalized in August — and opposed by many of the major oil companies that will be affected by it — is specifically designed to ignore climate considerations and is expected to increase the amount of the greenhouse gas released each year by 4.5 million metric tons. The additional pollution released will have the same impact as 100 coal-fired power plants each year, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which is suing the administration over the rule.

The EPA’s weakening of fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, which was finalized in March while most people were focused on the coronavirus pandemic, will also speed climate change and lead to more catastrophic weather events and wildfires. The change, which reduces fuel efficiency for these vehicles by 27 percent, is expected to result in at least 867 million metric tons of additional carbon dioxide pollution, the equivalent of the annual emissions from 216 coal plants.

The EPA has also reversed its policy of requiring businesses to inspect for leaks from refrigerators and air conditioners. The revision to the regulations, which was finalized in February, affects the release of hydrofluorocarbons, chemicals that can cause hundreds of times more warming than carbon dioxide and often leak from cooling equipment. According to the agency’s own science, the new rule will result in an increase of greenhouse gas emissions that has the same warming potential as 2.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year.

Meanwhile, the Department of Interior finalized its plan to open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a move that environmentalists expect to not only be devastating to the 700 species of plants and animals that live there but also greatly increase carbon emissions. In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission limited its consideration of greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas projects. And, through an executive order, Trump weakened regulations that were put in place to mitigate flooding from sea-level rise.

Perhaps most devastating is the loss of the Clean Power Plan. That Obama-era plan was designed to reduce climate pollution by more than 400 million tons by 2030. Instead, Trump replaced it with the far weaker Affordable Clean Energy Rule in 2019.

Home is seen with coal fire power plant behind it.

An abandoned home stands near the Longview Power Plant, a coal-fired plant, in Maidsville, W.Va., on Aug. 21, 2018.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Deadly Consequences

In many cases, this deregulation will have a measurable human toll. Changes to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which the EPA made in April, undermined limits on mercury and other toxic air pollution coming from coal-fired power plants that were put in place in 2011. Those regulations had prevented between 4,000 and 11,000 premature deaths each year, according to the agency’s own calculations. But under Trump, the EPA has decided that it is no longer necessary to regulate this pollutant, which causes brain damage in developing fetuses and increases heart attacks in adults.

If it stands, the methane rollback, which is being challenged by environmentalists, will also result in illness and death. In addition to hastening climate change, methane turns into ozone, which causes chronic diseases, including respiratory damage, cancer, asthma, and heart disease. Fence-line communities, which are disproportionately made up of people of color, including the more than 1 million African Americans who live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility, will be among the hardest hit by the pollution. And the replacement of the Clean Power Plan is expected to lead to thousands of deaths.

With less than seven weeks until the election, and the wildfires and flooding continuing to spread along with the recognition that they are part of a larger climate apocalypse, the Trump administration is still scrambling to finish the deadly destruction of some of the rules and processes that were put in place to protect human health.

Among other hugely consequential rules still hanging in the balance are the standards for particulate matter and ozone, both of which stem from power plants. Since 1977, the law has required that a Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC, made up of independent scientists help set the standards. While the committee still exists, the Trump EPA has gutted it, removing many of the independent scientists from it and all of the epidemiologists, and instead stacked it with industry-friendly experts. CASAC is now headed by Louis Anthony “Tony” Cox Jr., an industry consultant who disputes well-established science showing that particulate matter kills by increasing rates of heart and lung disease. He has worked for Exxon Mobil, the American Chemistry Council, and the American Petroleum Institute.

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler fired a panel of scientists that historically advised CASAC on particulate matter — which includes dust, dirt, soot, and smoke — and dispensed with a panel of ozone experts in what he claimed was an effort to “streamline” the standard-setting process. The result is that the EPA is now trying to finalize the current standards for both particulate matter and ozone, which independent scientists say are not protective of health. Although weather affects ozone levels, the proposed standard doesn’t consider the effects of climate change.

Maintaining the standards for the air pollutants, both of which result from power plant emissions, is a “sop to the oil and gas industry” that will prove deadly, according to Bernie Goldstein, a physician who served as chair of CASAC and a Reagan-appointed EPA assistant administrator who is now a member of the Environmental Protection Network. Already more than 100,000 people in the U.S. die because of air pollution, including particulate matter and ozone. “More people will die because the pollutant standards aren’t high enough,” said Goldstein.

Goldstein is particularly concerned about the increased vulnerability to these air pollutants during the coronavirus pandemic — something the EPA did not factor into its standard-setting process, even though it issued its proposal after the pandemic began. “The idea that something that violently attacks the heart and lungs the way Covid-19 does will interact with air pollutants that also attack the heart and lungs is a no-brainer,” he said.


Oil production in Prudhoe Bay, just outside Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Nov. 8, 2005.

Photo: David Howells/Corbis/Getty Images

Trump is working with the Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to expand logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, removing decades-old protections from the 10 million acres that absorb more carbon than any other national forest. And the administration is attempting, through the Department of the Interior, to fast-track the environmental reviews of oil and gas drilling projects, including the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline and a natural gas terminal in Oregon.

Also among the unfinished business at EPA is the rollback of 2015 protections that protect farm workers and agricultural communities from pesticide exposure. If the Trump administration succeeds with its change, farm workers — who are overwhelmingly Latino and already dozens of times more likely to be poisoned by pesticides than non-farm workers — will face even greater exposure.

And the EPA is taking the last steps to finalize its “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule, which would limit the use of independent science in the agency’s decision-making by employing a strategy first devised by tobacco companies. The proposal was sent to the White House regulatory review office earlier this week, and Wheeler said he hopes to finalize it by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the administration is still at work on two proposed rules affecting the Endangered Species Act: One will open up designation of critical habitat to challenges by industry, and the other will institute changes in the interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, pushed by the oil and gas industry, that “will result in the deaths of many birds,” according to Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Trump administration has already been “devastating for endangered species,” according to Greenwald. “It’s been a terrible waste of four years at a time when we don’t have four years,” he said. “While scientists around the world have been raising alarms about the extinction crisis, they’re rushing to finalize these rules.”

A melted pro-Trump sign.

A melted pro-Trump sign remains at a burned residence during the Bear fire, in the Berry Creek area of unincorporated Butte County, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2020.

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Reversing the Damage

The Center for Biological Diversity is just one of the environmental organizations that have been using the courts to challenge the Trump rollbacks. Overwhelmingly, these suits have succeeded. Only 12 out of 81 lawsuits related to environment, energy, and natural resources deregulation were decided in the Trump administration’s favor as of August 31, according to the Institute of Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law.

If Trump loses the election, a Democratic administration could fairly easily resolve many of the suits that are still pending. “Biden could quickly signal that he won’t defend Trump rollbacks in court,” said William Buzbee, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. “Administrative law is flexible and always gives a future president the ability to reverse the damage of his predecessor.” A Biden administration could also simply reverse the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement — a move that won’t be finalized until a day after the election and will take a new president 30 days to reenter.

Depending on the date of the rollback, if Biden is elected and there is also a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate, some of the changes could be reversed through a law called the Congressional Review Act.

But other damage inflicted by the Trump administration on environmental protections will take longer to reverse. Some finalized rules will require years of formal rule-making to change. And there will be no way to revive the Clean Power Plan. “It is pretty close to dead,” Thomas McGarity, professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, said of the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate initiative. “If the next administration wants to do something on climate change and they try to do it administratively they’re going to have to start over.”

Some of the harm that Trump has inflicted by disputing established climate science and rolling back desperately needed climate protections is irreparable. “It will be impossible make up for the four years spent ignoring and worsening the climate crisis,” said Buzbee. “The amount of additional CO2 and methane in the atmosphere will linger for decades if not centuries. That loading into the Earth’s atmosphere cannot be recovered and that time cannot be recovered.”

The climate reversals have irrevocably undercut the international effort to address the most pressing issue of our time. “Climate change is in the end a trust game,” said Buzbee. “Nations constraining their own polluters have to trust that others will step up and also do their part. But by stepping back, the U.S. has lost credibility.”

Buzbee, who judges Trump as already “the worst president for the environment in U.S history,” predicts that the environmental impact of a second Trump term would be immeasurably more destructive. “They’d have the time to finish and defend all the first-term rollbacks,” he said. “I’m not sure the EPA and the major environmental statutes could withstand the onslaught.”

While the administration is racing to complete its rollbacks, the Sunrise Movement has sent its members door-to-door to convey the stakes of the election to voters. “Our movement is talking to hundreds of thousands of young people in swing states across the country to communicate the opportunity we have to organize and mobilize under a Biden admin,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. “Biden wasn’t the first choice of many young people, but he is the clear choice.”

Activist and writer Bill McKibben has put a finer point on the environmental consequences of unseating Trump. “This is going to be the most important election for the next few million years,” McKibben tweeted on Tuesday, sending out a video of the president once again denying climate science even while being briefed on the fires that have killed dozens of people and destroyed millions of acres of land.

EPA Spokesperson James Hewitt provided the following comment in response to an inquiry from The Intercept:

This story is pushing a false narrative that isn’t rooted in fact. Under this EPA, air pollution in this country has fallen 7 percent, we’ve delisted 61 Superfund sites, invested $40 billion in water infrastructure, collected more in criminal and civil penalties than the Obama Administration did in their first term, and are finalizing a final Lead & Copper rule. All regulatory decisions are grounded in science and our legal statutes unlike the last administration.

Environmental experts took issue with all of the claims in the EPA’s response. Asked about the air pollution reductions, Elena Craft, senior director of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund, said she was unclear of any measure by which air pollution has fallen by 7 percent and added that “I can’t think of a single action that this administration has done that would result in a reduction of emissions.”

While the EPA has delisted many Superfund sites, it also has the largest backlog of unfunded construction projects at Superfund sites in 15 years. According to Betsy Southerland, who retired after 30 years of working for the EPA, the agency is trying to take credit for work done under previous administrations. “Delisting is just a paperwork exercise documenting that a project was completed in previous years,” she said. “This administration has the worst record of any previous in terms of the number of projects that were ready for construction that they did not fund. Rather than request the funding needed for these sites, they actually asked for cuts in the Superfund budget every year.”

Southerland also said that the agency’s touting of the lead and copper rule was disingenuous: “The proposed lead rule did not lower the concentration that would trigger lead pipe replacement. And they slowed the required rate of replacing lead pipes.”

As for the penalties, EPA’s own data shows that in fiscal 2019, the agency conducted the smallest number of inspections of polluters in at least 18 years, with about half the number of inspections conducted a decade earlier. A 2019 report from The Environmental Integrity Project documents these trends and shows that the number of criminal environmental cases opened and polluters charged fell sharply under Trump.

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