02/04/2020 - Regulatory Rollbacks

State of the Environment 2020

Tonight President Trump will give the final State of the Union address of his first term. It’s likely that he will discuss some environmental and energy issues given the scale of his administration’s deregulatory agenda in these areas. After three years of proposals, EPA and other agencies are finalizing rules and advancing policy changes in 2020 that are poised to reshape environmental regulation.


President Trump may discuss his efforts to accelerate infrastructure projects. He thinks many of “America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process,” which is why his administration has proposed changes to the environmental review process under the National Environmental Policy Act.

  • Revising the implementing regulations for the National Environmental Policy Act: NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of certain proposed actions and share information about proposals with the public. NEPA ensures that the federal government considers potential consequences and alternatives before it acts, providing opportunities to save money and improve project design and future operations. The proposed revisions could reduce the amount of projects that need to go through environmental review and narrow what is considered during the review process.

Energy Development

President Trump frequently touts “American energy dominance” and how his administration “has put in place policies that tap into America’s incredible energy resources.” What’s left unsaid is the severe environmental and climate impacts caused by the rush to expand US oil and gas development. These include:

  • Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration: BLM finalized an environmental review for leasing the entire 1.56 million-acre Coastal Plain. By its own estimates, oil production in the area could cause up to 378,261 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually (CO2e).
  • Expanding oil and gas leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska: The National Petroleum Reserve is the nation’s largest block of public land. Despite its name, much of the reserve is protected from oil and gas development because of its significant environmental value. BLM’s draft plan proposes four options for oil and gas development, including opening up over 18 million acres of arctic land for leasing.
  • Opening more public lands for oil and gas development: The rapid undoing of previous regulations and expansion of areas available for leasing poses a risk to human health and safety and threatens to put vulnerable conservation areas at risk from development. The Trump administration is moving to develop previously protected federal lands in a way not seen in recent years.
  • Expanding offshore oil and gas leasing: The Department of Interior’s draft 5-year leasing plan for 2019-2024 opens most US coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, and the Department of Commerce is reviewing marine monument and sanctuary designations for potential modification. Although currently on hold due to litigation, the administration has not abandoned its plans for expanding offshore leasing. The administration has also weakened rules related to emergency response and operational oversight. Rolling back these rules and designations increases risks to offshore oil worker safety, the non-energy industry economic value of US oceans and coastal areas, and the ecological well-being of those areas.

Climate Change

President Trump will likely mention jobs in manufacturing and fossil fuel industries without addressing climate change and the need for decarbonization in these sectors. His administration’s actions over the past three years have slowed progress on mitigating climate change and have the potential to increase emissions in the future. These actions and their impacts include:

  • Leaving the Paris Climate Agreement: The United States is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, and the largest historical emitter. America’s approval of the Paris Climate Agreement signaled our intention to cooperate globally in reducing our emissions and helping countries reduce theirs as well.
  • Requiring almost no reductions in carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants:The administration’s rule for carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants is projected to reduce emissions by 0.7% by 2030. Analysis shows that the rule could actually increase CO2 emissions rather than reduce them. Emissions of other air pollutants sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can also be anticipated to increase.
  • Weakening standards for methane leak detection and repair for oil and gas extraction on public lands. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is often vented or flared during oil and gas extraction and can leak from production equipment. BLM delayed compliance dates for a rule addressing venting and flaring from oil wells and revised the rule to roll back most of the previously enacted requirements. BLM had estimated the Obama-era rule would save enough methane to supply around 740,000 households with natural gas each year.
  • Rolling back fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for cars and trucks: Improving the fuel economy of cars and trucks saves consumers money on gas and lowers emissions; a roll back of standards increases fuel costs and air pollution. The transportation sector is the largest source of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The proposed rule could cause an increase in climate damages from added GHG emissions of $9 million and an increase in health damages from added air pollutants of $5.9 million.
  • Proposing to remove methane standards for oil and gas facilities: The Trump Administration has worked to relax rules and revoke guidelines related to emissions of methane and organic volatile compounds (VOC). EPA estimates its proposed changes “would increase methane emissions by about 370,000 short tons, and VOC emissions by about 10,000 tons…” between 2019 and 2026.
  • Proposing to rescind regulations for repair, maintenance, and disposal of appliances containing HFCs: This proposal would exclude appliances with HFCs, chemical substances with high global warming potential, from regulations requiring leak inspections and repairs.In the proposal, “EPA estimates that this proposed action would result in foregone annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions benefits of at least 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e).”
  • Appointing a climate skeptic to EPA’s Science Advisory Board: In January 2019, Wheeler appointed John Christy, a controversial professor of atmospheric science, to the Science Advisory Board. Christy rejects the fact that climate change is largely driven by human activity and has spoken out against regulating GHG emissions.
  • Casting doubt on climate change science: EPA’s Office of Public Affairs sent an email to staff in the agency’s program offices and 10 regional offices in 2018 directing staff to promote “consistent messages about EPA’s climate adaptation efforts” and providing climate-denying talking points.

Air Quality

President Trump has previously said “I want the cleanest air on Earth. And that’s what we’re doing.” He may repeat a similar claim this evening. However, the Trump administration has been working to weaken air quality programs, and a recent report found that 108 million Americans lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality in 2018. Examples of the Trump administration’s actions on air quality include:


President Trump has also said he wants the United States to have “crystal-clean water” and triumphantly announced the repeal of the Obama-era Clean Water Rule. He may touch on that “accomplishment” this evening: