Op-Ed Policy Science

Environmental Rollbacks in the Trump Era: Why we need serious policy interventions

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

A recent New York Times analysis reports that the Trump Administration is in the process of rolling back at least 95 different environmental laws and regulations. Many of these rollbacks target Obama- and even Clinton-era rules that were mandated to mitigate climate change and curb ecological pollution. Out of the 95 rollbacks, 58  have been completed while 37 of them are in the process of being sanctioned. Although a small fraction of the completed rollbacks have been challenged in courts and reinstated, a large majority remain in effect. Most of the rules rolled back are policies related to air quality, drilling, and excavations. Some of the completed rollbacks include freeing oil and gas companies from reporting greenhouse and other toxic gas emissions, removing restrictions on the use of ozone-depleting chemicals, and the lifting of a ban on a gasoline blend that is speculated to cause air pollution. In addition to other rollbacks, these could potentially set our environmental action plan decades back while also severely degrading our air quality.

Half of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from just four sectors: oil and gas, power, waste, and transportation. The “Big Four,” as I would like to call them, collectively contribute 3,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year. A significant fraction of the rollbacks affect the Big Four directly.

The Obama Administration instituted regulations on the oil and gas industry to restrict emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes more significantly to global warming than carbon dioxide. For instance, in 2016 the EPA requested that oil and gas owners provide information pertaining to methane emitting devices and measures to control emissions on their premises. As early as 2017, this information request was retracted. A separate rule that aimed to reduce methane emissions from drilling in federal and tribal lands was partially repealed by the current administration. Both of these rollbacks make a significant dent in our efforts to curb methane emissions, a significant proportion of which are sourced from drilling operations, making these measures even more crucial. Methane leak repair regulations for the oil and gas sector are also in the process of being repealed. Other drilling related regulations that have been repealed include fracking associated water pollution checks, Great Lakes and ocean preservation measures, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling ban, and offshore drilling regulations.

The power sector, especially coal fired plants, contribute majorly to carbon emissions. Thus, the Clean Power plan was introduced by the Obama Administration to set tight limits on carbon emissions. This regulation was repealed recently, undercutting efforts to regulate carbon emissions at the federal level. Further, the government may repeal a regulation restricting mercury emissions from coal fired plants.

The transportation sector also witnessed its own share of rollbacks, including  a set of regulations targeting tailpipe emissions and a ban on E15, a gasoline blend that contains 15% ethanol. It has been found that in summertime conditions, fuel with higher ethanol concentrations produces smog. Further, California had its power to establish its own vehicle emissions standards revoked. Fuel-efficiency and reduced pollution standards for cars and light trucks may be repealed in the future. Other sectors affected by rollbacks included infrastructure and planning, animals, toxic substances, and safety.

The Trump administration has repeatedly targeted efforts to improve air quality and curb emissions. A NYU law report predicts that greenhouse gas emissions are set to increase under these new rules (200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually by 2025) accompanied by an increase in air pollution that will cause acute and potentially fatal health effects and economic losses in the form of missed work days. The rollbacks also set a contradictory tone for action towards climate pollution as compared to mandates in Europe and globally.

In the light of these events, it is essential to ramp up science policy efforts to mitigate the long-standing effects these rollbacks will have on climate pollution in the U.S. One route to achieve that is via university, city and state level climate science advocacy efforts. In particular, climate  researchers need to be involved in such efforts, possibly even at a federal level. Organizations such as the EPA, NOAA, and US Fish and Wildlife Service need the support and backing of climate scientists to ensure appropriate conservation and pollution control efforts are undertaken. It is even more important to educate the general public about the detrimental effects environmental rollbacks will have on our climate change and air quality. Environmental law rollbacks represent the current administration’s policy of undoing previous efforts to mitigate climate change and pollution. Thus, it is imperative that the broader scientific community, including academia, stand up and ensure that their science is heard.

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