Op-ed written by James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg
To hear President Trump tell it, he is “truly an environmentalist.” He says, “I want crystal clean water. I want the cleanest air on the planet.”
But few Americans seem to believe him. The vast majority of voters indicate that the environment is very important (63%) or somewhat important (25%) to them in the mid-term elections. They strongly disapprove of Trump’s environmental policies.*
Their disapproval is not surprising. The nation has been wracked by weather-related natural disasters over the past year: fires in California, hurricanes in Florida, North Carolina, and Hawaii. Many areas, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, still struggle to meet clean air standards. And drinking water emergencies remain recent memories in Flint, Michigan and Charleston, West Virginia.
Yet the Trump administration has systematically worked to undo environmental commitments and policies that are popular not only with Democrats but with independents and moderate Republicans too. Trump hasn’t spent much time in office quibbling about environmental risks or the details of climate science. Instead, he just emphasizes that the economy and jobs come before public health and the environment.
The Trump administration has initiated processes to:
* Withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.
* Replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-third by 2030, with a plan that guarantees no reductions.
* Freeze fuel-economy standards for new vehicles at 2020 levels through 2026.
* Fast-track a permit for a massive new hard-rock mine in the pristine Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska.
* Weaken a rule that requires power plants to reduce mercury emissions.
* Open up unprecedented amounts of onshore and offshore public lands for fossil fuel production, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and western national monuments in Utah (which his administration is trying to reduce in size by roughly 2 million acres).
* Weaken the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, including protections for threatened species.
* Repeal the 2015 Waters of the United States rule, which clarified the scope of the Clean Water Act.
This is not the “back-to-basics” agenda the Trump campaign promised for the nation’s environmental laws and regulations. Instead, it is the most concerted and far-reaching effort to weaken the regulations that have protected the environment and human health since the 1970s, when the EPA was first created.
This anti-regulatory blitzkrieg marks the culmination of conservative Republicans’ frustrations with the EPA that have been building since Ronald Reagan arrived in the White House in 1981.
Much like Trump, Reagan set out to roll-back the nation’s environmental policies when he appointed James Watt to lead the Interior department and Anne Gorsuch to lead the EPA. Despite Reagan’s blustery anti-environmental rhetoric and his conservative appointees, his administration’s efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other core environmental policies largely failed.
But where Reagan largely failed, Trump is better positioned to succeed. What explains the difference? First, since the 1990s, congressional action on the environment has collapsed in gridlock. That has made administrative initiatives more important. Much of what Trump is undoing are administrative initiatives that the Clinton and Obama administrations put into place through rules, regulations, and initiatives that ran around rather than through Congress.
Second, in the 1980s, a Democratic Congress watchdogged Reagan’s deregulatory agenda at every step. Reagan’s efforts to rollback key environmental laws ran up hard against a Congress full of Democrats and moderate Republicans that knew how important the nation’s core environmental laws had been in lessening the burdens of pollution and improving public health.
Today, however, a Republican-controlled Congress has largely cheered the Trump administration onwards. As a result, the Trump administration has been free to aggressively pursue regulatory reforms. It has tilted advisory boards in favor of industry appointees and has slashed EPA staff. Which EPA division has lost the most staffers? The Office of Enforcement and Compliance.
To date, Trump has pursued his anti-environmental agenda mainly through administrative actions. In the months ahead, many of these initiatives are likely to be stalled or overturned in the courts. That won’t bring a close to Trump’s anti-environmental agenda. Instead, Trump will likely look to Congress to change the underlying laws to bring his deregulatory agenda to full fruition.
Although that strategy did not work for Reagan, it could for Trump, especially if Republicans hold onto majorities in Congress next week. If that happens, expect things to get worse yet. The ill consequences for our nation’s environmental and public health laws will be even longer lasting and more consequential than what we’ve seen so far.
* Based on fall 2018 polling data from Roper and Gallup.