Blair Horner: Earth Week 2020 | WAMC

Blair Horner: Earth Week 2020

Apr 30, 2020

Last Wednesday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.  For five decades, the world has marked Earth Day as a time to reflect on the state of the environment and to debate how best to improve the only habitat we have.

Marking the half-Century anniversary, this year’s Earth Day occurred during the coronavirus pandemic.  The world’s attention has been focused on the terrible impact that COVID-19 has had – and is continuing to have – on the world’s population and economy.

But some were taking steps on the environment - unfortunately, the steps taken were backward.  The Trump Administration has used its time in office to do all it can to erase whatever advances have been made to curb environmental degradation and, in particular, to slow the rate of global warming.

In recent weeks, while the nation was transfixed by the pandemic, the Trump Administration’s anti-environment actions picked up steam:

  • the Administration announced weaker emission standards for cars.  The Administration is in a legal battle with California over whether it can revoke the state’s longstanding power under federal law to require tougher auto standards. 
  • the Trump Administration suspended much of the EPA’s enforcement of environmental laws.  Then it acted last month to advance a new rule to limit the science the EPA is allowed to consider in its day-to-day analytical work.
  • the EPA is moving towards a rollback of coal power plant standards that limit the amounts of brain-damaging mercury and arsenic the plants release.  The EPA is seeking to change how the costs and benefits of environmental rules are calculated, downplaying the savings from improved human health while elevating the costs to polluters to implement them.
  • the Trump Administration weakened the Clean Water Rule to roll back clean water regulations limiting discharges from various industrial facilities, including power plants and petrochemical plants.
  • the Administration weakened regulations issued under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by providing regulatory relief and fee exceptions for a wide range of chemical manufacturers, including petrochemical manufacturers.  TSCA is the main federal law regarding the safety of chemicals used in commerce.
  • the EPA has allowed power plants to delay testing and reporting under federal Acid Rain and Cross-State Pollution programs, citing the impact of “travel, plant access, or other safety restrictions implemented to address the current COVID-19 national emergency.”
  • the Department of Transportation has moved to finalize the weakening of some pipeline safety requirements, including creation of oil spill response plans and safety and reporting requirements for pipelines transporting hazardous liquids or carbon dioxide.  Weakening those requirements increases the risk of spills from oil pipelines.

The rationale for these actions?  The underpinning for many of these Trump Administration actions is its anti-science bias. However, these recent actions have a lot to do with 2020 potentially being the final year of the Trump Administration (unless re-elected this Fall).  The Administration faces an artificial deadline set by the 1996 Congressional Review Act that allows a simple majority in Congress to easily reverse the Administration’s rollbacks in 2021, if the President is defeated in November.

But the law only applies to regulations that were passed in the final 60 days of the congressional calendar.  The Trump administration is racing against the clock to limit the ability of a future Congress to undo his anti-environment regulatory actions.  This means that this surge is just the beginning of actions that will be taken until the end of May.  If the President is defeated, a new Democratic Administration could spend much of its first term slowly working to reverse the policies implemented by the Trump White House. 

While the nation is understandably fixated on the enormity of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump Administration has been busy as bees rolling back protections for the environment and public health.  The nation should be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. Instead, under the cloak of the virus, the quality of the nation’s environment is experiencing unprecedented destruction.  This is the Trump Administration’s way of “celebrating” our one and only planet.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.