Months ago, DC Deciphered featured a post in which I argued that incompetence on the part of not just Trump, but the GOP Congress as well, would prevent them from passing many of their major legislative initiatives. Expanding on an idea originated by national security expert Benjamin Wittes (he talked about it specifically in the context of Trump’s Muslim ban), I noted that we should be thankful that their cruel agenda would be tempered by their incompetence in getting it enacted.
I cautioned in a follow up, however, that there was still plenty of damage the Trump administration would be able to do, even if he was never able to get a single significant piece of legislation passed, by using other methods at his disposal for instituting policy & regulatory changes. One of the main areas where I expected he’d be able to make the most significant changes was in the area of climate/environmental regulation. Unfortunately, so far this prediction has proven to be correct.
The most obvious example of this is Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. But there are smaller – yet still significant – examples of the Trump administration setting us back on the environment just about every week. I’ve included some of these examples in several of the weekly “What Did I Miss?” news roundups, but the last few weeks, there’s been so much news, it was getting difficult to squeeze them in. So this week, I decided to do a roundup solely focusing on the subject. This isn’t a comprehensive review of all the changes Trump administration has made in the environmental realm – it’s just a selection of news from only the last few weeks. With that, here’s some of what the Trump administration has been up to just in the month of August . . .
1. First up, the NY Times took a look at the highly secretive manner in which agency head Scott Pruitt is carrying out his deregulatory agenda at the EPA. Remember, prior to being appointed by Trump to lead the EPA, Pruitt was serving as Attorney General of Oklahoma, where he made a career out of battling against the EPA. He is also a climate science denier.
Mr. Pruitt’s penchant for secrecy is reflected not just in his inaccessibility and concern for security. He has terminated a decades-long practice of publicly posting his appointments calendar and that of all the top agency aides, and he has evaded oversight questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to the Democratic senators who posed the questions.
His aides recently asked career employees to make major changes in a rule regulating water quality in the United States — without any records of the changes they were being ordered to make. And the E.P.A. under Mr. Pruitt has moved to curb certain public information, shutting down data collection of emissions from oil and gas companies, and taking down more than 1,900 agency webpages on topics like climate change, according to a tally by the Environmental Defense Fund, which did a Freedom of Information request on these terminated pages.
William D. Ruckelshaus, who served as E.P.A. director under two Republican presidents and once wrote a memo directing agency employees to operate “in a fishbowl,” said such secrecy is antithetical to the mission of the agency.
2. But we are able to get some insight into the inner workings of the EPA thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the New York Times. The scoop the Times found has to do with a pesticide called chlorpyrifos. Back in the 4/7 “What Did I Miss?“, I told you about an EPA decision on this pesticide, which had been banned for indoor use more than 15 years ago. During Obama’s presidency, EPA scientists also recommended banning it for outdoor (agricultural) use, because of its potential to cause damage to the bran and nervous system. But the EPA under Trump rejected the recommendation for that ban.
Now, with the 700 pages of documents received under the FOIA request, the NY Times has the backstory on how that decision came about – and let’s just say that it was not exactly backed by science. The documents show that Pruitt was lobbied by an interest group for the agriculture industry and then his political staff at the agency intimidated career staff into writing papers that would defend the decision to reject the ban.
3. The EPA has begun the process for rolling back an Obama-era rule that would limit the amount of toxic waste coal-fired, natural gas and nuclear power plants can release into U.S. waters:
[T]he new rulemaking will target the so-called ELG rule, which applies to most power plants. The Obama administration finalized these standards in November 2015, estimating they would curb the amount of toxic metals, nutrients, and other pollutants that power plants annually release into US waters by 1.4 billion pounds.
The types of pollutants coming out of these plants have been linked to a range of health and environmental problems, from cancer in humans to deformities in fish.
4. As foreshadowed in a March “What Did I Miss?” the EPA has now also begun the process for relaxing emissions standards for new cars. This is despite the fact that car manufacturers have already adjusted to building cars with greater efficiency, and consumer surveys show that car buyers prefer the savings they get from fuel-efficient vehicles.
While other climate-change initiatives spearheaded by President Obama — like the EPA strategy for reducing emissions from power plants, called the Clean Power Plan — received more scrutiny from industry and conservative critics, emissions standards for cars are just as consequential for curbing the buildup of atmosphere-warming gases, analysts said.
5. And, it’s hard to remember now, but that disastrous news conference Trump gave last Tuesday started out as an announcement about his new infrastructure executive order. Tucked away inside that executive order, however, is a single sentence overturning an Obama-era flood rule. The rule is meant to protect any federally funded building – such as DOD buildings, public schools, water treatments plants, etc. – built in a flood zone. Under this rule buildings receiving federal aid were required to be built with rising sea level projections in mind:
federally funded new buildings in floodplains to be built at least two feet off the ground, or based on the elevation of a 500-year flood. A third option was to decide where and how high to building using the best available climate data . . .
“Ultimately, taxpayers will pay the bill,” [former FEMA director] Fugate said, referring to Trump’s reversal of the standards. “You are underwriting risk that we could have prevented or significantly reduced by adding 12 inches to the foundation of a building or structure paid for with your tax dollars.”
Engineering experts had pleaded with Trump not to overturn the rule, and according to them, there doesn’t appear to be any rationale for doing so.
6. At the beginning of August, the Trump administration gave formal notice to the United Nations of its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. Remember, the premise of this decision was that Trump wasn’t against a deal on climate per se, he just wanted to renegotiate to get an even better deal. But Reuters reported earlier this month that Rex Tillerson sent a cable to U.S. diplomats telling them to play coy on the question of renegotiating:
U.S. diplomats should sidestep questions from foreign governments on what it would take for the Trump administration to re-engage in the global Paris climate agreement, according to a diplomatic cable seen by Reuters . . .
If asked, for example, “What is the process for consideration of re-engagement in the Paris Agreement?”, the answer should be vague: “We are considering a number of factors. I do not have any information to share on the nature or timing of the process,” the cable advises.
7. And this one we can’t blame on the Trump administration, but take a look at this incredible data from the NY Times. “It’s not your imagination. Summers are getting hotter.”
8. Now on a brighter note, here’s a bit of news about how some are organizing to fight back against these moves by the Trump administration. Legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick reports that a law firm in D.C. has teamed up with the Union of Concerned Scientists to form the Science Protection Project. This new organization will match up private practice lawyers who have government experience with federal scientists to help them protect the independence of their agencies, and to protect the work they’re doing from being suppressed or altered or subject to any kind of inappropriate political or industry influence. As one representative of Concerned Scientists explained to Lithwick:
Civil servants are in the best position to point out the consequences for public health and the environment when their work is suppressed or eliminated. Attacks on science can be incredibly subtle, from reducing data collection to dismissing scientific advis[e]rs. It’s even more difficult to hold the administration accountable when so much happens behind closed doors with no paper trail. We rely on people inside government to expose potential abuses so the public can understand what’s actually at stake.
9. And former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has just donated $6 million to New York University School of Law. The money is dedicated to starting a new center called the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, which will help state Attorneys General defend policies that are meant to protect the environment.
Both this item and the previous one are reminders that many of the changes Trump, Pruitt, etc are instituting now in the environmental arena – through executive orders and rule changes – will likely face legal challenges. So we don’t know yet just how successful they will ultimately be in implementing this regulatory rollback. It’s likely the courts will deal them at least some setbacks along the way. But in the end, they will almost certainly be able to reverse large parts of Obama’s legacy on the environment.