WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has spent the run-up to next week’s election touting himself as the finest steward of the nation’s air and water in generations. “Who would have thought,” he boasted during one stop in Florida, “Trump is the great environmentalist?”
But over the course of nearly four years, his administration has steadily loosened oversight of polluting industries, eroded protections for endangered wildlife and stymied Obama-era efforts to address the globe’s most daunting environmental threat: climate change.
A Washington Post analysis has found that as Trump’s first term winds to a close, he has weakened or wiped out more than 125 rules and policies aimed at protecting the nation’s air, water and land, with nearly 40 more rollbacks underway.
The administration has accelerated its push to deregulate in the weeks before the election, to ease requirements on power plants that leak waste into waterways, weaken efficiency standards for dishwashers, scale back oversight of mine safety and approve seismic drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge.
On Thursday, the Trump administration opened up more than 9.3 million acres to logging in Alaska’s vast Tongass National Forest, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests. It boasts the highest density of brown bears in North America, and its trees — some of which are 1,000 years old — absorb more carbon than any other forest in the United States.
Trump officials say they are focused not solely on diluting existing policies but on advancing a more practical environmental agenda. They say they have prioritized issues most relevant to Americans — a list that includes cleaning up Superfund sites, upgrading municipal water systems and addressing the maintenance backlog at national parks.
But Trump, who once vowed to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency to “little tidbits,” promised regulatory rollbacks when he arrived in Washington. And they will probably define his environmental legacy, touching every corner of the nation, from what comes out of car tailpipes to how companies extract oil on land and at sea.
More than half of the policies instituted by the Trump administration are being challenged in court by environmental groups, states and public health organizations. While the looming election and ongoing legal fights ultimately will determine whether many of them remain in place, their impact has already begun to reverberate.
Trump appointees at the EPA, the Interior Department and other agencies have followed a simple playbook: Speed up the administrative process, in an effort to suspend or overhaul environmental rules and replace them before January 2021. Even as the administration has suffered dozens of court losses, Trump has managed to win even when losing, by preventing some Obama-era rules from taking effect or by delaying compliance dates for industry.
By doing so, the Trump White House also has made it harder for the next Democratic administration to quickly restore previous efforts to drive down emissions linked to global warming, shift to cleaner forms of energy and prevent drilling on sensitive public lands. While Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has promised bold action on climate and a renewed focus on environmental justice, if he wins much of his first term could be spent trying to reestablish safeguards put in place during his years as vice president.
“We will have time lost,” said Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator during President Barack Obama’s second term and now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And if you’re following anything about what’s going on across the country, from wildfires to hurricanes to floods to droughts, we don’t have time available to rebuild this.”
When Trump and his deputies set out to scale back federal constraints on industry, they declared that the previous administration had repeatedly overstepped its legal authorities. They also argued they could cut burdensome rules while still keeping the nation’s air and water clean. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler maintained that a “heavy-handed approach to environmental regulation” had not served businesses or citizens well.
Early on, the Trump administration employed a tactic that Democrats and Republicans had used in the past: It temporarily froze regulations that had not yet gone into effect. But then it took it one step further, delaying the dates by which companies would have to comply with some rules that were already in effect.
“At the end of the day, the administration was able to buy enough time to make substantial progress” on its top priorities, said Jeffrey Wood, who led the Justice Department’s environment division for the first two years of Trump’s presidency before joining the law firm Baker Botts to represent corporate clients.
Federal judges have repeatedly ruled that the administration failed to follow the Administrative Procedure Act, which sets requirements for notice and public comment regarding proposed rules. That forced Trump officials to finalize at least a dozen Obama-era rules they opposed. Environmentalists have systematically challenged key rollbacks, winning 36 of 53 recent decisions, according to the Post analysis. Several of these cases remain under appeal.
In several instances, the Trump administration’s push to suspend Obama administration rules kept them from taking effect.
For example, the Obama administration in 2016 restricted the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas wells. Under Trump, the Bureau of Land Management told companies they did not need to meet those standards, a move that the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California ruled was illegal. The BLM wrote a new methane rule, but the same court found it flawed and vacated it nearly 2½ years later. The U.S. District Court in Wyoming this month struck down the original Obama-era rule. All the while, oil and gas companies have been allowed to release methane, largely unencumbered.
The EPA used a similar strategy to keep chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to brain damage in children, on the market, despite protests by farmworker and environmental groups.
Many of the administration’s early moves to unwind regulations were hampered by legal missteps, as officials rushed to change them without sufficient justification for the reversals or without allowing enough time for public comment. Neither of Trump’s first two Cabinet members with the most responsibility for charting environmental policies, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, had extensive experience with the federal bureaucracy and its procedures.
But over time, the administration became smarter.
Pruitt and Zinke became enmeshed in scandal relatively early in their tenures. Pruitt came under scrutiny for his lavish, taxpayer-funded travel and unusual housing arrangement, in which he rented a Capitol Hill condo at a discounted rate from the wife of a lobbyist. The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General investigated Zinke over a range of issues, including his real estate dealings and his decision to deny a petition by two tribes to operate a commercial casino in Connecticut.
Both left after less than two years, replaced by skilled technocrats with years of federal government experience who have methodically advanced a similar agenda, but with much less fanfare.
“I would say that the president was very, very clear from Day 1 on the policy changes that he wanted to see,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in an interview, adding that he would give Trump “an A-plus-plus” for the number of rules he has managed to peel back in one term. “What you see is that you had a leader in the president who really maintained his policy vision.”
The Trump administration has taken action on most of its major environmental priorities, including new rules that loosen caps on carbon pollution from power plants and weaken the federal government’s authority to control the dumping of contaminants or dredging of wetlands and smaller streams.
It has blocked stricter federal gas-mileage standards from taking effect — undercutting Obama’s most significant climate policy — and revoked California’s right to set its own, tougher air-quality standards. It has sought to narrow the federal government’s authority to set pollution limits under the Clean Air Act, a move that could constrain future administrations for decades.
It has made fundamental changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock law that has existed for five decades, in an effort to accelerate approvals for pipelines, highway construction and other major projects that pose environmental risks. Bernhardt called the recently completed overhaul “transformational,” adding that it will have “a dramatic consequence on the speed of decisions” throughout the government. Critics have countered that it will give local communities less say over potentially harmful projects in their backyards.
“Many of the rules that the administration is putting in are designed to limit the kinds of information agencies consider and the scope of things they can examine,” said Sam Sankar, senior vice president for programs at the environmental-law firm Earthjustice. “The narrower your scope of information, the less public input, the smaller the scale of science you’re looking at, you’re taking industry’s word for it.”
Current and former Trump officials such as Matt Leopold, who served as the EPA’s general counsel before joining the firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, argue that their narrower reading of the law is easier to defend in court than the Obama administration’s approach. They point to the fact that the Supreme Court blocked Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would have required states to meet targets for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants.
The impacts of the Trump administration’s approach are already visible on the ground.
In Utah, a company is gearing up to begin drilling for helium in a remote patch atop the state’s Labyrinth Canyon with a lease awarded by the administration three weeks before Congress designated it a protected wilderness area. In Georgia, a controversial plan to mine titanium and zirconium near the Okefenokee Swamp — the largest national wildlife refuge east of the Mississippi River — is moving ahead without federal oversight. And the president has stripped federal protections from at least 29.6 million acres of public lands and waters, according to the Post analysis — an area slightly larger than Pennsylvania.
The BLM held off auctioning drilling rights in a 3 million-acre swath of southern and eastern Utah for six years under Obama as it crafted leasing plans to offer more protections. On Jan. 31, 2018, Zinke wiped out those plans across the country and started offering leases.
Twin Bridges, a Denver-based company, bought one of those leases to drill for helium above Labyrinth Canyon, overlooking Utah’s wild and scenic Green River. The deal was finalized just in time; Congress designated all of the lease site and 55,000 acres surrounding it as protected wilderness three weeks later. The drilling is moving ahead; last week, the BLM issued a draft environmental analysis that would allow a well pad with a 15-foot-high drill rig within the wilderness area or right by it.
“The state and federal leases, the development of which will benefit the Utah state educational system and provide the critical resource of helium to the country, were issued to the company prior to the designation of the wilderness,” Twin Bridges partner David Wallace wrote in an email, adding that the company has proposed confining its drilling, pipelines and other activities to areas outside the boundaries of the wilderness.
Landon Newell, staff attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said in a phone interview that the operation could ruin the rugged landscape. “From a scenic perspective, it may very well be the worst possible spot of the lease to develop,” Newell said, noting that it would entail heavy truck traffic.
In Georgia, several hundred acres near the Okefenokee Swamp would have been off limits to mining under strict environmental protections dating to the Obama administration. But earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers determined that under revised Trump rules, the area is no longer federally protected and a titanium mining project can go forward.
“We have almost 400 acres of wetland that were protected on June 21st and were not protected on June 22nd,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. The project would still be subject to state permitting.
“Georgia doesn’t have a program that can step in and fill in for the federal program,” he said. “When you lose the federal permit, you lose the protection.”
Steve Ingle, head of Twin Pines, the Alabama-based company behind the project, said it plans to mine on nearly 600 acres near the Georgia-Florida line, arguing it can be done safely. In a statement, Ingle pointed out that no federal permits will be required, but he added that the company has extensive reclamation plans and agrees that the swamp “is a natural treasure, which we want to preserve as much as those who have opposed our proposal.”
Another major area where the administration has reshaped policy is with the Endangered Species Act, redefining what constitutes harm to a species and its “critical habitat.” The changes make it easier for the government to scale back protections for these plants and animals.
Jonathan Wood, a senior attorney at the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, said the changes will force federal officials to consider whether designating an area as critical habitat “will likely contribute to the recovery of a species. Before, they just assumed, ‘We’re going to designate, and it’s going to help the species.’”
Noah Greenwald, endangered-species director for the Center of Biological Diversity, said the move takes away a critical tool for recovery of habitats. The rusty patched bumblebee, for instance, which pollinates apples, plums, alfalfa and other crops, was once common throughout the East and Midwest, but its numbers have plummeted 88% in the past two decades. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently declined to designate its habitat as critical, which could have limited the pesticide use that has helped drive the bees' collapse, Greenwald said.
“You really can’t protect species without protecting the places where it lives,” Greenwald said.
A few of the administration’s top energy and environmental priorities have stalled, such as its plan to open up nearly all federal waters in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans to oil and gas drilling. It has leased more than 2.5 million acres of previously protected sage grouse habitat, but federal judges have blocked plans to make tens of millions more eligible for drilling.
Trump promised he would revive the coal industry by weakening costly pollution controls. But demand for coal has plummeted in the face of cheaper natural gas and renewable energy such as solar. Roughly 15% of the nation’s coal-fired electricity plants have shuttered during Trump’s tenure. Last month, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign announced that 60% of the 530 coal plants it has targeted have closed and that it expects the rest to be retired by 2030.
Coal’s collapse is one of the drivers behind the cleaner air and drop in U.S. carbon emissions that have come in recent years, something Trump boasts about on the campaign trail. But that shift has occurred despite — not because of — administration policies.
Democrats are already planning how they would revive environmental regulation if they win the White House. Biden has pledged to take executive action to block projects such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline and Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine, and to rejoin the Paris climate accord to help combat global warming. But overhauling many of the rules altered under Trump would take years, and clawing back oil and gas leases would be nearly impossible.
If Trump wins reelection, however, he and his deputies will probably try to shrink the federal government’s environmental role further, cement policy changes into law and finalize dozens of rollbacks they are working on now, said Caitlin McCoy, a staff attorney at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program.
“Given the opportunity for a second term, they will initiate and detonate everything they’ve set up,” she said. “We will see even more dramatic action now that all the groundwork is set.”