How Trump is Rolling Back Years of Progress on Environmental Policy

A rundown of how this administration is selling out the Earth for profits – and how cities, states & businesses are nonetheless pushing forward.

Not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration, National Geographic began cataloging the ways in which his administration was seeking to roll back environmental policies – including, but certainly not limited to, those enacted by his immediate predecessor.

That catalog of actions now runs some 70 pages.

It details Trump’s efforts to roll back progress in pretty much every arena: deleting environmental data from government websites; firing the Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisers; green-lighting the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines; reopening streams to dumping of mining waste and hazardous chemicals; allowing the use of lead bullets by hunters; “un-protecting” large tracts of public land; cancelling health studies; seeking to scrap the Clean Power Plan; deleting climate change from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s strategic plan; slashing budgets for a myriad of environmental actions, including lead-risk reduction, radon detection and Superfund site cleanup…the list goes on and on (and National Geographic updates it regularly with Trump’s latest hits).

In Trump’s first 100 days in office, his administration and the GOP Congress reversed course on 23 environmental rules, regulations and policies implemented during the Obama era.

That number jumped to 76 a bit more than a year later – and included rollbacks to rules, regulations and policies governing air pollution and emissions, drilling and extraction, infrastructure and planning, animals, toxic substances and safety, and water pollution.

Among the most egregious assaults against Mother Nature and American humans are:

  • Trump’s Jan. 4, 2018 announcement that he intends to open all U.S. coastal waters to oil and gas exploration. By re-initiating the Five-Year Oil and Gas planning process that month, he placed the coast of California in play for the first time in 34 years; put states like Maine, Oregon and Washington in the industry’s cross-hairs for the first time; and threatened to expose fragile Arctic seas to the risk of environmentally devastating spills.
  • His January 2018 dismantling of a key policy under the Clean Air Act, which maintains strict standards for major air pollution sources; and, a month later, his two-year suspension of the Clean Water Act.
  • His July 2018 proposal to strip the Endangered Species Act of key provisions, weakening the 45-year-old law designed to keep endangered plants and animals from going extinct.
  • And the Aug. 2 announcement that Trump is eliminating Obama-era fuel efficiency standards and challenging the special waiver that allows California to require automakers to sell cars that meet its own higher fuel efficiency and emission standards. Nineteen state attorneys general have already declared that they will sue to block the Trump administration’s action.

While Trump’s effort to dismantle decades of environmental progress is infuriating scientific experts and concerned citizens alike, some experts express hope that his actions will cause less damage than might initially be feared.

There are two reasons for their cautious optimism. First, states, cities and environmental organizations are fighting back publicly and in the courts. And second, many companies and state or local governments are just ignoring the new do-as-you-please-and-damn-the-environmental-consequences rules – and moving forward with planned environmental advances.

Fighting back

As the nation’s number one clean-energy-jobs state – more than half-a-million of its residents are already employed in that sector – California is leading the charge against Trump’s anti-environmental crusade.

“California has been a global leader in the course toward a clean energy future,” said Sandy Aylesworth, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s oceans advocate. She declared Trump’s attempt to open the state’s coastal waters to new oil and gas drilling “radical…a huge step backward,” a threat to the state’s clean energy economy and to its ability to sustain employment growth.

Aylesworth is optimistic about two bills – Assembly Bill 1775 and Senate Bill 834 – now moving through the California legislature, that will prohibit new state permits for infrastructure used to bring offshore oil to shore for processing. “California’s ocean economy is worth $45 billion, with half of that in tourism and recreation. Those two industries employ far more people than oil and gas do. The future of California lies in the strength of its people – and people here do not want offshore oil drilling.”

Her thoughts were seconded by R.L. Miller, co-founder of Climate Hawks Vote and chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Committee. As she put it, “Oil drilling off the California coast has been a non-starter in every White House since the [1969] Santa Barbara oil spill. California prides itself on pushing the growth of solar and wind energy. We are fighting back.”

With California on the cusp of passing Senate Bill 100, which will require 100 percent clean electricity sources by 2045, Miller declared that its passage will be “a direct response to Trump” that will give further impetus to the move toward clean, renewable energy sources nationwide.

“I’ve literally lost track of how many U.S. cities are going to 100% clean energy,” Miller remarked. “It all comes down to economics. The power companies don’t care where the power comes from as long as it’s cheap. And we’ve already lowered the cost curve for solar and wind – that [affordability] is here and now.”

While Trump has offered a bailout to coal and nuclear power, Miller went on, “unless he drastically changes the cost curve, people will ignore it and stay focused on cost…they’ll keep moving to clean, renewable sources.”

Miller also condemned Trump’s quest to eliminate the waiver that allows California to set its own, higher, auto emission standards. “We’ve had a waiver from the federal government for a number of years. Somehow, he believes in states rights when it comes to Oklahoma drilling for oil but not when California wants to clean up our air.”

Bill Magavern, Policy Director at California’s Coalition for Clean Air, thinks the state is in a good position to fight back. “The 13 ‘clean car states,’ led by California, represent more than a third of the nation’s new car market. And Colorado’s Gov. Hickenlooper wants to join, and other states may as well, depending on the outcome of the November election.”

Even if Trump does rescind the waiver, Magavern said, those clean car states could still uphold their higher standards, thanks to pending action by the California Air Resources Board. He expects that agency to inform auto manufacturers in September that they still must meet the state’s standards for both zero-emission vehicles and greenhouse gas emissions.

Miller and Magavern both expect the auto emissions battle to be waged for years in the nation’s courts – possibly ending up at the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, “auto companies are caught in the middle,” said Magavern. Clearly, though, they’ll want to keep selling cars.

Moving forward

And even as these battles continue, environmental advocates keep notching victories.

The California Air Resources Board announced on July 11 that the state had beaten its own self-imposed goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The state hit that target four years early, with total statewide carbon emissions dropping to 429 million metric tons in 2016 – 12 million tons lower than just a year earlier. It’s the equivalent, CARB reported, of taking 12 million cars off the road.

In an executive order issued early this year, California Gov. Jerry Brown called for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by putting another five million zero-emission vehicles on the state’s roads by 2030 and by curbing carbon pollution from fossil-fuel-propelled cars and trucks.

Nationally, a group of teens who met on Instagram and during lunchtime phone conferences has established Zero Hour, an environmental and technological coalition whose purpose is to “sound the alarm and call for action on climate change and environmental justice.”

And another group of young Americans is pursuing a landmark lawsuit against the Trump administration that seeks stronger federal action on climate change. The Supreme Court dealt the Trump administration a significant blow on July 30, when it denied its request to halt proceedings in Juliana v. United States, which is being heard in the District Court for the District of Oregon.

Even Trump’s new acting EPA administrator, Andrew R. Wheeler, is helping out a bit. Shortly after taking the reins, Wheeler “reversed the final policy act of his predecessor, Scott Pruitt,” the New York Times reported, which created a loophole “that would have allowed more highly polluting trucks on the nation’s roads.”

But maybe the EPA’s action isn’t all that astonishing. After all, EPA staff did try to help out their former boss when Pruitt’s ornate new desk (likely counted among the many ethically challenged purchases made by the self-aggrandizing ex-government official) was found to contain dangerous levels of the toxic chemical formaldehyde.

His staff thoughtfully recommended that the desk be aired out for a number of days before allowing it to be installed in Pruitt’s office.

In the meantime, Pruitt was busy…busy delaying release of an EPA report alerting the American people about the dangers of…you guessed it: formaldehyde.

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