Updated January 19, 21 2021 to reflect a court defeat for the Trump administration’s Clean Power Plan replacement.
Updated January 21, 2021 to reflect the Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis signed by President Biden. Read more at Inside Climate News.
When he first ran for President, Donald Trump was called the “chaos candidate,” and to the bitter end that has been borne out, with a violent mob of his supporters attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
But another kind of radical change happened over the last four years, one that didn’t always make headlines. When Trump came into office, he promised to prioritize corporations, businesses and jobs over the environment and public health. In many ways, he succeeded.
For all of us at Trump on Earth, it’s been a wild ride. Our first episode on January 23, 2017 asked Jody Freeman, law professor and director of the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School, what can Trump do, and not do, on the environment? Well, we found out over the next 99 episodes from the journalists, scientists, and former Obama officials we spoke with on everything from water rules and climate change to USDA and infrastructure. Find all of our episodes at Trump on Earth.
In our 101st and final episode, hosts Reid Frazier and Julie Grant review some of the biggest changes to environmental policy during the Trump administration. We hear from some new guests, and revisit past episodes.
We’ll be launching a new podcast in the coming weeks, which will cover where we go from here. There’s still time to take our survey to let us know what you’d like to hear. Please continue to support our efforts at Patreon, as we move from Trump on Earth to something new. Keep Trump on Earth in your podcast app, and we’ll keep you posted.
Thank you to all of our listeners and the guests who made the podcast possible, especially those who supported us through Patreon and the Robert F. Schumann Foundation.
Donald Trump came into office as a climate denier. Here’s what he told Hugh Hewitt in September, 2015:
“I’m not a believer in man-made global warming. It could be warming, and it’s going to start to cool at some point…and all of the things that we’re doing to solve a problem that I don’t think in any major fashion exists.”
When he took office, President Trump almost immediately pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement — the international agreement putting almost every country on a path to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. Throughout his term, he rolled back several major Obama-era climate regulations (described in the Regulatory Rollback section below).
He also promised to bring back the coal industry. But after four years, coal has continued its long decline. It’s now among the most expensive ways to make electricity, losing out to natural gas and renewables.
What is the legacy of Trump’s climate policy? Many experts say it’s the lost time to make headway on reducing greenhouse gases.
“I think Trump cost the planet four years, is one way to think about it, of progress on climate and energy. And that’s four years that we didn’t have to lose,” said Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law.
According to Horowitz, Trump did more than just take the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. He slowed international progress on climate change. “Just the way we think of the US as being able to lead on climate in a positive way, it can also be a drag on climate,” she said. “We saw that in spades during the Trump administration.”
Without the US pushing countries for more action on climate, Horowitz said they are doing less. “The latest round of climate pledges from countries were weaker than they would have been if the United States were at the table,” she said.
The total impact of all of Trump’s rollbacks on climate–if they survive legal challenges–was recently calculated at 2 billion tons of CO2 over the next 15 years combined. This is at a time when experts say we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero.
Just this week, in a surprise move, the EPA finalized a rule that would effectively limit greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act to the power sector, prohibiting new rules for other carbon-releasing stationary sources like oil refineries.
Update 1/21/21: President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, and review climate and environmental policies enacted during the Trump administration and, if possible, to reverse them.
- Episode 15: It’s Not Pittsburgh or Paris. It’s the Planet
- Episode 54: As the World Burns
- Episode 74: Murray Energy, a Major Trump Ally, Goes Bankrupt: Is this the Future of Coal?
- Episode 75: What’s the Future of Global Climate Policies?
Early on in his administration, it became clear that Trump wanted to cut regulations. In January 2017, Trump announced a two-for-one rule, which said for every one new rule the administration created, it would repeal or roll back two of them.
Harvard and Columbia law schools and Brookings, among others, have tracked the environmental rollbacks of the Trump administration. More than 100 rollbacks have been made dealing with climate change, air pollution, water quality, chemical safety, methane leaks from oil and gas facilities, coal ash disposal, wildlife protections, and many, many more. A number of these rollbacks are being challenged in the courts.
Now, with Congress and the presidency soon to be in the hands of the Democrats, more recent rules can be overturned. The Congressional Review Act allows Congress to reverse recent rules with a simple majority and the signature of the president.
Update 1/21/21: President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office to review the environmental policies enacted during the Trump administration and, if possible, to reverse them.
- Episode 22: The Quiet Dismantling of Obama’s Environmental Legacy
- Episode 34: Inside the EPA’s Regulatory Rollback Machine
- Episode 48: Why Trump Resistance Keeps Winning in Court
- Episode 88: Tracking Trump’s Environmental Rollbacks
- Episode 95: Trump Keeps Losing in Court
Clean Power Plan
Many of President Obama’s climate rules were reversed. One of the biggest:the Clean Power Plan, a 2015 regulation for the power sector, the country’s biggest source of greenhouse gases. More than a dozen states sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the rule, and the US Supreme Court put the Clean Power Plan on hold while these lawsuits played out.
Early on, the Trump administration took aim to repeal it, but was required by the courts to come up with a new rule.
“And the replacement regulation is really pathetic,” said Dan Farber, director of the Center for Law, Energy, and Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.
Where the Obama rule would have reduced carbon emissions by 17 percent, the new American Clean Energy (ACE) rule, announced in June 2019, cuts about three percent of carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. According to Farber, it doesn’t address emissions from natural gas-fired power plants, either. “So it really barely qualifies as a token effort,” he said.
Update 1/19/21: On Trump’s final full day in office, the ACE rule suffered defeat in federal court. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the rule on Tuesday, saying it did not protect public health as outlined in the Clean Air Act. The Biden EPA will need to start over with a new regulatory approach.
- Episode 11: Powering Down the Clean Power Plan
- Episode 24: A Clean Power Plan Postmortem
- Episode 64: So Long Clean Power Plan. It Was Nice Knowing You.
Fuel Efficiency Standards
Another peg of the Obama climate plan was to reign in emissions from cars and trucks. Automakers lobbied the Trump administration for more flexibility. Instead, “the Trump administration gave them a wholesale rollback of these rules, which is not what they wanted either,” said Umair Irfan, who covers these issues for Vox.
When California tried to create its own stricter fuel efficiency standards, Trump tried to strip the state of its authority. The Department of Justice even launched an antitrust investigation of automakers which supported California’s standards, but it was later dropped.
Update 1/21/21: On President Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order to review the fuel efficiency standards.
- Episode 66: California vs. Trump
Coal burning power plants emit more than just carbon. Along with oil burning plants, these plants are the nation’s biggest emitters of mercury, which is linked to neurological disorders and harm to the cardiovascular and immune systems.
The Obama administration created the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards in 2011 to limit the emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants, like arsenic, nickel, and acid gases from power plants. But in 2015, the US Supreme Court said that EPA regulation must weigh the costs to industry, in addition to public health and environmental risks.
When the Trump EPA looked at the costs, it found that the mercury rule was no longer “appropriate and necessary.” This, even though utilities companies had already complied with the Obama standards. So why did the Trump administration roll it back?
The answer lies in something called “co-benefits.” The mercury rule controlled other pollutants that when reduced, created more public health benefits than reducing mercury alone. When these co-benefits are included in the cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of the rule outweigh the cost to industry.
“Industry and conservatives have argued for a long time that you should not consider co-benefits. You should ignore those thousands or tens of thousands of people dying when you’re regulating,” said Berkeley’s Dan Farber. “And that really ties one of EPA’s arms behind its back in terms of being able to address environmental problems.”
In December, the EPA finalized a rule for cost-benefit requirements for future climate and air pollution regulations. The new rule is just one in several moves limiting science and consideration of public health studies at the agency. See the Science section below for more.
- Episode 84: If It Ain’t Broke, What Are We Fixing, Exactly?
National Environmental Policy Act
One of the most important environmental laws most people have never heard of is NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. It requires agencies to analyze how proposed federal highways or pipelines, or other big projects, will affect the environment in what’s called an environmental impact assessment. NEPA ensures that citizens have a chance to voice their opinions.
Trump, a real estate developer by trade, took aim at the law. Last summer, his administration unilaterally weakened NEPA, limiting public review and allowing federal agencies to decide which projects should undergo this review, without public input.
The administration claimed it would save hundreds of millions of dollars over almost a decade by reducing the amount of time allowed for environmental reviews of major projects.
In Episode 77, Sharon Buccino, senior director of the lands division of the Natural Resources Defense Council, decried the lack of public input.
“NEPA as it is written [before the rule change] recognizes that the public not only has a right to information, but that the public also has an indispensable and critical role in informing and shaping the decisions that our federal government was making for us” she said.
A coalition of 20 conservation groups have sued to block the new rule.
- Episode 77: Is this Trump’s Biggest Environmental Rollback?
- Episode 89: Major defeats for pipelines…and Trump
Waters of the US Rule
One big rollback early on by Trump’s EPA was replacing the Waters of the US Rule, or WOTUS.
This was Obama’s update to the Clean Water Act. The question of which waterways the federal government has the authority to regulate has been up in the air for decades. Obama tried to clarify it. Critics, including the agricultural industry and real estate developers, called the new rule an overreach. There were numerous lawsuits challenging it.
In the end, Trump’s replacement, the Navigable Waters Protection rule, protects far fewer wetlands and streams, opening them up to commercial development or oil and gas operations with no federal protection. An analysis by E&E News found more than half the nation’s wetlands, and nearly a fifth of its streams are no longer protected under the Clean Water Act.
The new rule is being challenged in court. The Biden administration would have to go through a new rulemaking to replace it, a process that can take years. And in the meantime, there’s concern about the rule’s impact on water quality and migratory birds.
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
There’s more bad news for migratory birds. Under a rule change finalized this month for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the US Fish and Wildlife Service won’t penalize companies that accidentally or incidentally kill birds. So, for instance, oil companies won’t be liable for killing thousands of birds because of an oil spill.
In February, we spoke with Brad Bortner, the former official in charge of the federal migratory bird program, on the podcast. He said numerous scientific studies show tens of thousands of birds are killed each year by a variety of industries.
“There are examples of tall radio towers that killed a thousand birds a night by collisions. On a foggy night, lights disorient them and the birds all crash into a tower,” he explained.
Now, industry or individuals would only be held accountable for bird deaths if they intentionally kill birds – even if their actions are known to cause harm. According to Bortner, the USFWS is no longer investigating bird deaths, so there’s no way to know how many birds are being killed.
- Episode 79: Trump Rule Would End Penalties for Bird Deaths
- Episode 91: @Interior: Victories and Defeats for the Oil Industry
Endangered Species Act
In December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service changed the definition of “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act. The new rule would shrink the amount of land protected for species threatened with extinction, opening it up for agriculture, logging and other development.
This comes after another key change to the Act allows the federal government to consider economic impacts, like job losses and revenue, when deciding whether to classify a species as endangered or threatened.
In Episode 91 from August, we spoke with Washington Post reporter Darryl Fears who covers the Department of the Interior, on these rule changes.
- Episode 43: Could the Endangered Species Act Go Extinct?
In the name of energy development, the Trump administration pursued an aggressive agenda of removing protections for huge swaths of public lands and water, from Alaska to the coastal waters of the Eastern seaboard.
Trump is the only president in U.S. history to have attempted to remove more public lands than he protected. According to one analysis, his actions equated to stripping protections for nearly 35 million acres.
Martin Nie, a professor of natural resources policy at the University of Montana said on our podcast in 2017 that the administration took opening up public lands to new levels. “I mean it’s multiple fire hoses, maybe fire hydrants, going off at the same time,” he said. “I am pretty stretched right now to keep up with all of it.”
Perhaps the most well-known hit to public lands protections happened early on in the Trump administration. Trump reduced the size of two vast national monuments in Utah – Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante – by 2 million acres. In the end, that move did not unleash the fossil fuel bonanza that some expected: It proved too costly for fossil fuel companies to get to the underground oil, gas and coal. On top of that, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group of five Indignous tribes, along with environmental groups immediately issued a legal challenge. The lawsuits are still making their way through federal court.
Now, President-Elect Joe Biden has promised to restore the monuments. That executive order is expected to come within Biden’s first 100 days.
Meanwhile, Trump has spent his waning days in office pushing through a number of other mining and energy projects on federal lands. The Associated Press reported this month that beginning in late 2020 when it looked like Biden’s win was certain, companies submitted over 3,000 drilling permits to the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency in charge of regulating oil and gas on public lands.
Nearly half of those permits were approved — the highest rate of any period during the Trump administration. With the new permits in place, the Biden administration won’t be able to do much to keep companies from drilling on these public lands, even with Democrats controlling the Senate, House, and White House.
Update 1/21/21: On President Biden’s first day in office, he signed an executive order to review the current boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments and a Trump executive order that allows commercial fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England. He also put a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega signed an order to temporarily halt new drilling on federal lands.
PBS NewsHour: Biden to review Trump’s changes to national monuments
Washington Post: Biden plans temporary halt of oil activity in Arctic refuge
Yale Environment 360: On U.S. Public Lands, Can Biden Undo What Trump Has Wrought?
- Episode 14: Will This Land Still Be Your Land?
- Episode 37: Alaska: Open for Business
- Episode 38: Trump’s Next Frontier
- Episode 55: Zinke’s Out. What’s the Damage to Public Lands?
- Episode 60: Agency in Charge of Protecting Public Lands Overwhelmed by the Drilling Boom
- Episode 99: Trump’s Last Act: Drilling in the Arctic Refuge
THE ROLE OF SCIENCE
Trump’s skepticism of climate science and emphasis on deregulation during his campaign and the early days of his administration had many environmentalists and scientists on edge. In fact, scientists organized a March for Science in Washington D.C. and in hundreds of other cities across the country on Earth Day in 2017.
That month, Reid Frazier spoke with Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Goldman said the administration hadn’t even passed the 100-day mark yet, and already they were hearing that career scientists at federal agencies felt worried about the futures of their jobs in the administration. There were also concerns about science being reviewed by political appointees and threats to funding.
“What we’re seeing under Trump is that this is a whole different ball game,” Goldman said. “We’re seeing plenty of abuses, and they’re happening faster in this administration than we’ve ever seen before.”
Goldman said there was a chilling effect on federal scientists, across government agencies. Studies critical of industry were getting held up, and scientists were blocked from speaking with the media.
In August 2019, longtime USDA climate researcher, Lewis Ziska, told us his agency took an already accepted research paper, and changed the conclusion.
“The first thing I thought was, well this is no longer about the science,” Ziska said. “This is about somebody’s ideology.”
Ziska is one in a line of researchers who left the federal government because of its treatment of science. But the Environmental Protection Agency was probably ground zero for a lot of these changes.
- Episode 12: Standing Up for Science
- Episode: 68: ‘This is no longer about the science. This is somebody’s ideology.’
- Episode 100: “Sound science is not leading the decisions made by this nation.”
The “Transparency” Rule
In May of 2018, then EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced the proposed Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule. The outcry from scientists was swift. That’s because public health research uses a lot of sensitive, personal medical information, and many people only participate if it’s kept confidential.
Trump on Earth host, Julie Grant spoke with Dr. Mary Rice in December 2019, when it was leaked that the rule was closer to being finalized. She is a physician and one of five scientists to testify before the House Science Committee on the proposed rule.
“Would you be willing to enroll yourself or your child in a study about toxins in the water, air or food if you knew EPA would take your data and share it with the world?” she asked in her testimony.
The rule limits the studies that EPA uses to make regulatory decisions to those where the raw data is public. So when EPA is looking to regulate industries to protect public health, it would give less consideration to studies that don’t provide open access to the personal information of its subjects.
“As a doctor, I would do my patients a disservice if I ignored a huge chunk of the scientific literature in making my medical decisions,” Rice testified. “And the same would be true for EPA if it ignored evidence in making decisions about toxins in our environment.”
Rice said the rule was particularly scary to her because it doesn’t just impact one policy, but any decision EPA has to make. In Grist, Anita Desikan, a research analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the rule could have a “disastrous effect” on vulnerable communities which are already disproportionately impacted by air pollution and harmful chemicals.
EPA announced in January 2021 that the rule had been finalized. It is one of several rules that could be overturned by Congress through the Congressional Review Act.
Update 1/21/21: President Joe Biden’s executive order signed on Wednesday includes a review and possible “suspending, revising, or rescinding” of this rule.
- Episode 40: Pruitt’s Transparency Problem
- Episode 76: Strengthening Transparency or Silencing Science?
Science Advisory Boards
Another major shift at EPA is the reorganization of the agency’s Science Advisory Board — panels of independent scientists hired by the agency to review science around EPA policies
Chris Zarba was an EPA science official, and helped put together these review boards. But in 2017 EPA officials banned scientists who received EPA grants from serving on these panels. Zarba said he had to pick up the phone and fire scientists. However, scientists who received grants from industry were exempted.
Zarba said the impacts have been profound. For example, EPA has issued new standards for ozone and particulate pollution that were weaker than what scientists recommended.
In the past, Zarba said there wasn’t all that much difference between Republican and Democratic administrations when it came to how science was treated at the agency. He said that all changed over the last four years.
“There’s been a huge exodus of talent from the agency, many of its efforts have been slowed down, so future efforts to protect human health and the environment have been stalled or slowed down or ended,” Zarba said.
- Episode 30: Meet the Scientist Standing Up to Scott Pruitt
- Episode 100: “Sound science is not leading the decisions made by this nation.”
Trump on Earth is a podcast exploring the environment in the Trump era with deep analysis, clear information, and real talk from the critics, scientists and thinkers who know the issues. Hosted by reporters for The Allegheny Front and produced by Andy Kubis. Don't miss an episode, subscribe to the podcast.