Environmental rollbacks and COVID-19: A tale of opportunism

Over the last four months, while the COVID pandemic has occupied the forefront of the American public’s consciousness, the Trump administration has indefinitely suspended a series of EPA regulatory activities and undone a collection of crucial environmental protections.

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

*This is a guest blog written by Aidan Braun, an intern with our friends at Frontier Group.

Over the last four months, while the COVID pandemic has occupied the forefront of the American public’s consciousness, the Trump administration has indefinitely suspended a series of EPA regulatory activities and undone a collection of crucial environmental protections.

Most recently, on June 18 the EPA announced that it would halt the introduction of regulations of perchlorate, a chemical found in rocket fuel. The story of how perchlorate entered American water supplies in the first place is a troubling one; today the chemical, known to slow neurological development and lower IQ, is found in the drinking water of 16 million Americans. The administration has now deemed the regulation of perchlorate to be “burdensome.” 

The deregulation of perchlorate is only the latest step in the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to undo decades of environmental protections. As of May 20, the administration has repealed 66 environmental regulations and is in the process of doing away with 34 more. 

Administration actions this April and May took aim at two of the country’s cornerstone environmental laws, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. In March, auto emissions regulation goals created under President Obama were undermined. The new rule replaced the Obama administration’s goal of annual emissions reductions of 5% with annual reductions of 1.5%. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said that the move corrected the original regulations which were costly to automakers. On the other hand, the scientific advisory board of the EPA has concluded that the weakening of emissions standards will increase carbon pollution by 867 million metric tons and will force Americans to use more than $176 billion worth of gasoline they wouldn’t have needed under the Obama rule. To make matters worse, the cost to businesses that Wheeler cited is a dubious premise at best, given that the industry has already planned for and demonstrated the ability to meet Obama-era requirements.

Not content with increasing just carbon pollution, the Administration also rolled back an Obama-era rule limiting mercury and air toxics emissions by coal power plants. The reduction in pollution was estimated to prevent ~10,000 deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year and save $90 billion in public health costs. With the encouragement of coal producers, the Trump administration slashed the rule, disregarding the potential death toll and deeming it inappropriate to consider related healthcare savings.

The administration is also undermining the Clean Water Act of 1972. In a rule finalized on April 21 and put into effect on June 21, wet meadows, adjacent wetlands and small tributaries are officially excluded from protections. The new rule means that 18% of streams and 51% of wetlands in the U.S. have less protection than they did before. The Clean Water Act was established in order to restore and maintain the “chemical, physical and biological integrity” of America’s waters. The Administration’s actions undermine the original intent of the act and in doing so threatens the environment and public health.

In April and June, the administration also stripped protections for public lands. First, on April 10, President Trump signed two executive orders to accelerate energy projects on federal lands. The orders directed the EPA to minimize states’ ability to halt the construction of pipelines, and moved the power to approve international pipelines from the Secretary of State to the President, sidestepping a thorough approval process. The extended process has been justified by the fact that pipelines leak an average of 76,000 barrels of oil per year, contaminating land, water, crucial animal habitat and human communities. 

Then on June 4, the President signed another executive order to hasten energy projects. The order urges federal agencies to invoke emergency powers to circumvent the traditional approval process for projects that trigger provisions of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and National Environmental Protection Act. 

Just eight days later, on June 12, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue issued a memo to the Chief of the Forest Service encouraging the exploitation of public lands by extractive industries and scaling back regulatory measures standing in the way. 

In April, May and June, the Trump administration didn’t just fail to meet the challenge of protecting Americans from COVID-19. It also made calculated choices to further undermine our health by cancelling environmental protections designed to ensure a liveable future.

Image credit: Pixabay


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG