The Trump administration, after less than one full first term, has every likelihood of being adjudged the most anti-climate, anti-science, and anti-environment executive branch in U.S. history. With numerous high-level Trump nominees having cut their teeth as lobbyists with major polluting industries, the administration has been steadfast in weakening or eliminating major conservation and environmental regulations and programs.
Notwithstanding President Trump’s claims to want “crystal clean water and the cleanest and the purest air on the planet,” his administration has determinedly gone about reversing at least 100 environmental rules. While initial Trump EPA cutbacks under Administrator Scott Pruitt were hampered by his self-inflicted scandals, the agency under Administrator Andrew Wheeler has quietly worked to achieve many of the same ends. Wheeler’s environmentalist critics are fond of saying that he is “so bad because he is so good at being bad,” thereby often avoiding incriminating headlines that had plagued Pruitt.
The extensive regulatory cutbacks raise questions about how much long-term damage they might pose to air and water quality and to serious efforts to address climate change. With a presidential election now five months away, they also raise “What if…” questions about whether such cutbacks might be sustained or how quickly they might be reversed by a new administration.
Let’s consider just five of the most significant regulatory actions affecting the climate and air quality.
Abandoning the Paris climate accord
Just over four months into his presidency, President Trump announced from the White House Rose Garden his intent to withdraw America from the international Paris climate agreement, which has now been accepted by all 197 countries in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change except the U.S. This action clearly was a crucial symbolic move and a highly visible one domestically and internationally.
The Paris agreement is non-binding, meaning that Trump could simply have ignored it without any material repercussions. His decision to instead boastfully trumpet U.S. withdrawal from the accord sent the message that his administration would not just ignore climate change, but also attempt to hamper global efforts to address the crisis. That early message has been borne out over the subsequent years of his term.
The United States cannot officially withdraw from the Paris agreement until four years after joining – on November 4, 2020, the day after the next presidential election. Were presumed Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden to win that election, he could well decide to rejoin the Paris accord in his first days in office after the January 20, 2021 inauguration. That reversal process would not take effect for at least 30 days, so the U.S. in that case would have been officially withdrawn from the agreement for less than four months.
However, America’s withdrawal left a void in international climate leadership – a void China has strived to fill – at a critical point in time. Other world leaders have tried to continue advancing international progress, but Trump has actively undermined their efforts, and most countries outside Europe are not on track to meet the Paris commitments.
Meeting those targets will require a rapid reduction in emissions over the coming decade. Advocates for climate action hope the restoration of America’s role as a leader in international climate negotiations can inject much-needed momentum into those efforts.
Vehicle fuel efficiency standards
Transportation accounts for the largest chunk (29%) of American greenhouse gas emissions, and the U.S. has among the weakest vehicle fuel efficiency standards in the world. U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards were first implemented in 1975 in the wake of the Arab oil embargo to reduce American reliance on foreign oil.
Between 1978 and 1985, U.S. passenger vehicle fuel efficiency requirements increased by more than 50%, from 18 to 27.5 miles per gallon. But as oil prices and interest in environmental protection among top political leaders softened, CAFE standards stagnated, with passenger vehicles stuck at 27.5 mpg for the next quarter century, until 2011. That’s when, as part of a bailout from the Obama administration during the Great Recession, automakers agreed to nearly double vehicle fuel efficiency by 2025.
But with oil and gasoline prices remaining low over the past five years, most domestic new vehicle purchases have been for crossover SUVs and pickup trucks, posing a challenge for automakers to meet the new CAFE standards. As a result, they asked the Trump administration to ease the requirements and instead received a lesson in the idiom “be careful what you wish for.” The Trump administration decided to freeze the CAFE standards in place, ignoring warnings by EPA scientists of serious flaws in the new rulemaking, and perhaps violating federal rules by trying to keep the scientists’ critiques secret.
The new proposed rule also triggered a battle with California and other states that have long championed strengthening fuel efficiency standards. After the administration declined to compromise with the states, the issue has morphed into a legal fight that will keep the auto industry in an undesirable regulatory limbo of uncertainty for the foreseeable future.
A Biden administration likely would revive stricter CAFE standards within a year or two of taking office. Such a move – pending of course the outcome of the November presidential and congressional elections – would amount to a relatively brief hiatus in the nation’s commitment to increasing vehicle fuel efficiency.
The Clean Power Plan replaced with ‘ACE’
Electricity production accounts for the second-largest chunk (28%) of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama EPA announced the final version of the Clean Power Plan in August 2015 to regulate electric utilities’ carbon pollution.
However, the plan was challenged by the conservative attorneys general of 27 states, led by West Virginia, and was temporarily blocked in February 2016 in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision along what have become frequent ideological divisions among the justices. The Trump administration took office while legal challenges to the rule were still ongoing.
Under an earlier landmark Supreme Court decision (Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007), EPA is legally required to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant once it concluded that greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to public health via climate change. As a result, the Trump administration could not simply scrap the Clean Power Plan, but rather was required to replace it. Under Weaver, the Trump EPA did that with the dramatically weaker Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, which essentially requires fossil fuel power plants to increase their efficiency rather than mandating that they meet specific carbon dioxide emission levels.
Because challenges to the erstwhile Clean Power Plan were not resolved through litigation, tackling power sector emissions is expected to be a lengthy and more difficult process for a new Democratic administration than transportation emissions, for which the CAFE standards are already established. Doing so would require drafting, proposing, and finalizing a new plan to replace the Trump ACE rule. History teaches that such an effort unquestionably would lead to a whole new set of legal challenges, and therefore to more delay and uncertainty.
EPA’s ‘secret science’ red herring
What leading professional scientific organizations and environmental advocates call the “secret science rule” would limit EPA to using in its rulemaking only research for which the underlying data can be replicated or made available for “independent analysis.”
That has a benign and even reasonable sound to it, but many health studies rely on confidential information, or on one-time events like a major oil spill that cannot be replicated. Critics say the real goal of the proposed rule is to vastly limit the health research available to EPA scientists, to the benefit of polluting industries.
The agency’s own Science Advisory Board – two-thirds of whose current members have been appointed by the Trump administration – sharply criticized the agency’s efforts to weaken environmental regulations, including via the secret science rule. The board noted that the proposed rule would give the EPA administrator “license to politicize the scientific evaluation required” and would “result in the exclusion of much of the scientific literature from consideration.”
Union of Concerned Scientists research director Gretchen Goldman has said the rule would especially restrict use of studies that show the need for air pollution protections, such as ambient air quality standards for nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide.
EPA is in the process of reviewing 76,000 public comments on the rule. Assuming it succeeds in finalizing the rule prior to the Trump administration’s leaving office, any new administration would have to engage in the several-year rulemaking process to reverse the move.
Regulating fine particulate matter
EPA disbanded its scientific review process for evaluating public health hazards from readily respirable fine particulate matter (PM2.5) under the Clean Air Act. Particulate matter is critical to numerous EPA rules because its adverse health impacts and associated regulatory costs had long been thoroughly researched and quantified and are generally widely accepted.
Also see: Burning fossil fuels heats the climate. It also harms public health.
For example, the Obama EPA adopted a mercury emissions air pollution rule in 2012 in part on the basis of the “co-benefits” of the rule’s incidental reduction of particulate matter. Installing electric utility mercury pollution controls was estimated to cost power plants $9.6 billion per year, with only a $6 million per year benefit from reduced mercury pollution. But the installed equipment would also reduce other pollutants like particulate matter; including those resulting benefits increased the estimated health savings to $16 billion per year – more than the equipment price tag. These co-benefits also come into play in justifying climate rules that phase out the use of polluting fossil fuels.
So the Trump administration changed the rules to stop counting co-benefits. As a result, benefits accrued by reducing non-targeted pollutants like PM2.5 are not included in the cost-benefit analysis. The outcome has been to weaken the EPA mercury emissions standard.
After EPA disbanded its particulate matter scientific review panel, the Union of Concerned Scientists independently brought panel experts together to make recommendations anyway. They concluded that “the current suite of primary fine particle (PM2.5) annual and 24-hour standards are not protective of public health. Both of these standards should be revised to new levels.” EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, however, set aside those recommendations, and Wheeler has signaled that he does not intend to strengthen the PM2.5 standard. The rule is open for public comments until June 29.
Asked how long it might take a new administration to revise the standard, Goldman of UCS replied that, “We have no real legal precedent for this situation where a legitimate scientific process wasn’t followed. It would probably require another rulemaking process, so a few years at best.”
A several-years setback
The outcome of the November elections will determine if the Trump administration’s environmental damage lasts four extra critical years in the midst of what many now accept to be a climate crisis. If Trump wins re-election, many more legal challenges to the environmental regulatory rollbacks will be settled in court rulings, where environmental groups have mostly been winning. Nevertheless, this process allows the Trump administration to continue delaying efforts to curb emissions of carbon and other pollutants, potentially through 2024 and beyond at a time when rapid carbon emissions cuts are needed by 2030 to meet the Paris targets.
If Biden wins the election, the multi-year rulemaking process to curb pollutants can begin in 2021. The U.S. will have lost valuable time, but could then begin reducing emissions to meet its Paris pledges and seek to re-establish the position it took as a leader in global climate negotiations when Biden was vice president during the Obama administration. Biden likely would need supportive majorities in both the House and the Senate to succeed with such efforts.
The two scenarios present a stark contrast for the decade of the 2020s, which will be critical in either exacerbating or seeking to temper rapid and dangerous climate changes.