The Restoration of Environmental Regulation

The four long years of environmental deregulation came to an end on January 20 when Joe Biden took office. While the Trump administration’s legacy is one of relaxing and deleting environmental laws as giveaways to the oil and gas industry, the Biden administration has already made it clear it will restore environmental regulation. On the day Biden took office, he restored America’s place in the Paris Climate Agreement. By contrast, Trump signed an executive order within a few weeks after taking office requiring federal agencies to get rid of two regulations for every new regulation. 

Restoring scientific integrity in federal agencies

On January 27, Biden signed executive orders designed to bring back environmental regulation. One of those executive orders is titled the Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. It directs federal agencies to make decisions based on the best available science and data. The memorandum gives the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy the responsibility for ensuring scientific integrity across federal agencies. 

The memorandum corrects one of the Trump administration’s last rules. Dubbed the “anti-science rule,” the Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information, limits what research the federal agency can use to set public health policy. The rule restricts the EPA’s use of key scientific studies when it considers taking regulatory action on pollution and toxic chemicals.

Tackling climate change 

Biden signed an executive order declaring net-zero global emissions by mid-century are required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

  • The order affirms that the U.S. will exercise leadership in dealing with climate change. 
  • The order establishes the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by the National Climate Advisor and Deputy National Climate Advisor. It will be a central office in the White House with the responsibility to coordinate and implement the President’s domestic climate agenda. 

Instructing the federal government to lead by example

The executive order Biden signed on January 27 directs the federal government to lead by example. It directs federal agencies to procure carbon emission-free electricity and zero-emission vehicles. The purchases must be made in America, following Biden’s Buy American executive order. The order also directs federal agencies to develop a plan increasing the resilience of their operations and facilities to climate change impacts. 

Putting the brakes on new fossil fuel leases on public lands and fossil fuel subsidies

The executive order directs the Interior Secretary to put the brakes on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands and offshore waters. It directs the Interior Secretary to launch a review of all existing leases and permitting practices of fossil fuel development on public lands and waters. The DOI must also take steps toward doubling renewable energy production from offshore wind by 2030. Under the Trump administration, oil and gas leases were granted on public lands across America, including in Alaska’s Arctic area. 

The executive order directs federal agencies to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. U.S. direct fossil fuel subsidies are an estimated $20 billion a year, and that is a conservative estimate. The oil and gas industry receives 80 percent of the subsidies, while the coal industry receives 20 percent. 


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Trump’s Environmental Deregulation Legacy

No president did more to deregulate environmental protection than Donald Trump. Environmental deregulation started early. At the beginning of his administration, Trump signed an executive order that for every new regulation issued, at least two regulations must be identified for elimination. That was a signal we were in for a long deregulatory ride, one that lasted the entire four years of his administration. 

The environmental laws the Trump administration rolled back included replacing the Clean Power Plan, gutting the Endangered Species Act, and weakening both the Coal Ash Rule and Mercury and Air Toxic Standards. Every rollback represents a giveaway to Trump’s industry cronies. The oil and gas industry and the mining industry came before the environment in his administration. 

Replacing the Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy rule 

The Obama administration proposed the Clean Power Plan in 2014 and finalized it in 2015. The CPP created carbon dioxide emission performance rates for two subcategories of fossil fuel-fired power plants. Carbon accounts for 82 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Under the CPP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that carbon emissions from the electricity sector would decrease by 32 percent below 2005 levels. Sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants were projected to drop by 90 percent, while nitrogen oxide emissions would drop by 72 percent. 

In March 2017, former President Trump issued an executive order directing the EPA to review the CPP, and in October 2017, the EPA proposed to rescind the rule. In 2019, the EPA finalized the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which rolled back the CPP. While the CPP set nationwide standards to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, ACE allows states to set their own standards. ACE will increase carbon emissions by over 600 million short tons by 2030, according to the EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis

Gutting the Endangered Species Act

The Trump administration issued a new rule in December that weakened the Endangered Species Act by making it harder to protect critical habitat areas for threatened and endangered species. The rule narrows the definition of habitat by limiting it. The problem with limiting the definition is that climate change causes habitat degradation and loss, which is one of the main causes of extinction. 

The new rule amounts to a giveaway to the fossil fuel and mining industries. It allows the oil and gas industry to explore and extract in areas of critical habitat and allows mining industries to set up shop in areas where threatened and endangered species live. 

Weakening the Coal Ash Rule and Mercury and Air Toxic Standards

Coal ash occurs after power plants burn coal to produce electricity. It is one of the biggest types of industrial waste generated in the U.S. According to the EPA, in 2012, 470 coal-fired power plants generated about 110 million tons of coal ash. In 2015, the Obama administration issued a rule to deal with coal ash. In 2018, the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to strengthen the national coal ash standards set in 2015. Instead, the Trump administration weakened the 2015 standards. 

The Mercury and Air Toxic Standards require fossil fuel-based power plants to reduce mercury emissions and other pollutants, including arsenic, nickel, and acid gases. Power plants are the biggest emitters of mercury in the U.S. Exposure to mercury is linked to a slew of human health problems, including neurological disorders. The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the EPA must consider the costs to public health and industry. The EPA published a cost finding in 2015 before issuing the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards in 2017. 

In 2018, the Trump administration proposed to revise the cost finding. The new cost finding stated that MATS is no longer “appropriate and necessary.”

In addition, the revision found the mercury and other pollutants from power plants acceptable.

In April 2020, the EPA gutted MATS. 


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The Continued Attacks On Environmental Protection By Lame Duck Trump

As the Trump administration winds down, the environmental rollbacks continue and even seem to increase. The air, water, soil, human health, and animals are not exempt. What matters most to the people running the federal agencies charged with protecting the environment is industry, namely the fossil fuel industries. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt worked as an oil lobbyist. Many of his decisions serve as handouts to his former clients or others in the industry. 

Ignoring the Marine Mammal Protection Act

Environmental groups continue to fight for environmental protection. The Center for Biological Diversity sent a notice of intent to sue to the Interior Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for not updating population analyses for polar bears, walruses, sea otters, and manatees, as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The notice letter asks for immediate updates for expired stock assessments of polar bears, Pacific walruses, three stocks of northern sea otters in Alaska, the southern sea otter stock in California, and two stocks of West Indian manatees around Florida and Puerto Rico.

The MMPA requires the FWS to do stock assessment reports for all marine mammals within its jurisdiction, and that includes polar bears, sea otters, walruses, and manatees. Some of the stock assessments have not been updated in over a decade. Stock assessments are key to managing marine mammal populations. With them, threats to marine mammals are analyzed and guide management actions for industries, including commercial fisheries and oil and gas. Failure to update stock assessments harms the very animals the FWS serves to protect. 

“It’s no accident this administration refuses to update stock assessments for polar bears and other species highly vulnerable to oil spills. Trump is again ignoring his legal obligations as a favor to Big Oil,” said Lalli Venkatakrishnan, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is about good science. The feds must know how marine mammal populations are doing before allowing any harm to these animals from oil and gas activity and other threats.”

Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge up to the oil industry

The notice comes as the Trump administration rushes oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Trump administration takes handouts to the oil industry to a new level, making the George W. Bush administration look like one that protected the environment. Recently, the Trump administration issued a “request for nominations” to oil companies, asking them to identify their preferential areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to lease for oil drilling.

The Arctic Refuge is considered sacred land to indigenous groups. “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is sacred land that sustains not just the Gwich’in and Iñupiat Peoples but is one of the last untouched ecosystems in the world,” said the director of Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic (SILA), Siqiñiq Maupin, in a statement

Five of the six major U.S. banks (Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo) have announced that they will not fund any new oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge. President-elect Biden stated he will make permanent protection for the Arctic Refuge and other federal areas impacted by the Trump administration’s policies a day one priority. In other words, expect Biden to issue executive actions regarding federal lands.


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EPA Defies Court Order to Halt the Use of Dicamba

President Trump’s administration demonstrated its complete disregard for the environment and human health in a myriad of ways. One of those ways involved disregarding a court order regarding an herbicide called dicamba.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registered two dicamba products and extended the registration for another dicamba product for applications on dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans. The decision allows dicamba to be in use from 2021 to 2025. Both products will expire in December 2025 “unless the EPA takes further action to amend the registration,” according to the federal agency’s announcement

The EPA’s decision to register dicamba ignores a court order on June 3, 2020 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to vacate the use of dicamba. The court cited the EPA’s failure to acknowledge the risks the herbicide poses to the environment and conventional crops. On June 8, the EPA told growers they could continue using dicamba until July 31. 

First registered in 1967, dicamba is a widely used herbicide in the U.S. It is used on crops, pastures, fallow land, turfgrass, and rangeland to kill weeds. The herbicide is also registered for use in residential areas and other non-agricultural sites. Over 1,000 products sold in the U.S. include dicamba. 

“Protecting the pesticide industry has been a top priority of the EPA during the Trump administration,” said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook. “Millions of acres of crops will continue to be damaged, and the health of farmworkers, children, and all those who live near farms where dicamba is used will be at risk – all in the name of appeasing chemical agriculture.”

Environmental, health effects of dicamba herbicide

The EPA claims it “conducted robust evaluations of the risks to human health and the environment.” Yet its decision to register three forms of dicamba shows it ignored the scientific evidence that the herbicide poses environmental and health threats. One of the environmental problems dicamba causes is pesticide drift. Older versions of dicamba caused pesticide drift so they were typically not used much during warm months when they could kill trees or other crops. In 2016, the EPA approved the registration of new formulations of dicamba that allowed for “over-the-top” applications on dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybean plants. 

Scientists warned that the over-the-top applications would cause damage from drift. Complaints about drift damage have increased in several farm states since the introduction of the new applications. In 2017, the EPA tallied 2,708 official dicamba-related crop injury investigations, with 3.6 million acres of soybeans affected. 

Dicamba is a threat to monarch butterflies. The Center for Biological Diversity found that the timing and the geographical distribution of dicamba use coincide with areas where monarch eggs and caterpillars are found on milkweed. The herbicide degrades milkweed which adult monarchs rely on for nectar. As monarchs travel south for the winter, nectar is their only food source. One percent of the minimum dicamba application rate is enough to reduce the size of milkweed by 50 percent. 

The EPA ignores its own evidence that dicamba presents a risk to human health. A 2016 study by the federal agency found that the biggest health risk from either drinking water or dicamba residue on food is found within children one to two years old. 

There are studies linking dicamba use with cancer and thyroid problems. The most recent study found a higher risk of liver, intrahepatic bile duct cancer, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia. A 2010 study found a strong association between dicamba and cancer among those who applied it, while a 2001 study found an association between dicamba and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Dicamba is linked to thyroid problems. A 2018 study found a significantly increased risk between dicamba and hypothyroidism. Another study done five years prior found “increased odds” of hypothyroidism and dicamba.

What you can do

While it is highly unlikely the Trump administration will halt the use of dicamba, a new administration takes office in January. Start tweeting to Joe Biden and demand that his administration ban the over-the-top applications of dicamba. 


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Green Wave 2020 Aims To Put Environmentally Friendly Candidates In Office

President Trump’s environmental policies mostly consist of rolling back Obama-era policies dealing with climate change. Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. That action put the U.S. in the role of being the only country expressing intent to withdraw from the agreement. Trump can’t officially withdraw until the day after the 2020 election. That makes November 3 an important day for environmentalists. 

In early October, a coalition of environmental organizations launched a project to elect environmentally-friendly candidates. Green Wave 2020 is a joint project of Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, EDF Action, the NRDC Action Fund, and the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund to mobilize the members of the organization to help elect environmental champions in November. The organizations created a list of over 30 congressional races where the targeted candidate has a strong environmental track record or platform. Many of the candidates in the 30 prioritized races are running against someone how denies climate change. 

Green Wave 2020 involves more than 70 professional organizers in 15 states who mobilize environmental group members volunteering to help elect environmentally-friendly candidates. The organizers provide members with remote phone and text banking opportunities, along with other online tools. The project mobilizes thousands of environmental group members. 

“The stakes for the environment, for our climate, and for communities suffering the worst consequences of toxic pollution across the nation have never been more stark than in 2020,” said Sierra Club President Ramon Cruz. “This unprecedented mobilization of our collective membership, including millions of members nationwide, will also help build lasting infrastructure in key states and districts that environmental champions running for office can rely upon for future election cycles.”

Turning a red state green

Arizona is typically a red state where Republican candidates tend to flourish. The state’s three congressional races each make the priority list of the Green Wave 2020. Those three races include a senate seat. Mark Kelly (D) hopes to unseat incumbent Senator Martha McSally (R) to win John McCain’s former seat. A glance at the websites of both candidates shows why the project focuses on Arizona. McSally’s site does not even mention her environmental views, while Kelly’s site contains information on his views on climate change and the environment.

McSally’s site states that she supported Trump’s repeal of the 16 Obama-era regulations. The League of Conservation Voters gave her a six percent on its National Environmental Scorecard. That ranking put her on the organization’s Dirty Dozen that targets the most anti-environment candidates. McSally voted against the Clean Power Plan, efforts to boost Arizona’s clean energy economy, and clean air protections. Phoenix has one of the worst air basins in the country. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2020 report ranked Phoenix among the top 10 most polluted cities for ozone, year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution.

Kelly wants to boost Arizona’s clean energy economy. His site points out that the sector employs 10,500 people in the state. He wants to triple that number by “making massive investments in research and development of technologies that make renewable energy more competitive and accelerate the transition to a renewable economy.” The LCV endorses him for the senate. 

Green Wave 2020: What you can do

Join Green Wave 2020. Vow to vote for candidates that champion the environment and work to mitigate climate change. As EDF Action President Joe Bonfiglio said, “The stakes in this year’s elections are incredibly high.” 


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