The administrations lengthy slate of rollbacks will slow progress on reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases that warm the planet, health experts say
Donald Trumps administration is racing against the clock to rescind or rewrite every major pro-environment policy enduring from Barack Obamas presidency but the government will probably not be able to usher those changes through the courts before the next presidential election.
Green-minded states and advocates cannot sue until regulations are final, and it could take years for the courts to rule. In the interim, the lengthy slate of rollbacks will slow progress on reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases that warm the planet, health experts say.
Bruce Buckheit, who worked in the Environmental Protection Agencys enforcement division under both Democratic and Republican presidents, said the first year of the Trump presidency was a bunch of press releases, but now were getting to the point where theyre actually doing things.
The timetable that theyre rushing toward is to try to get these things done in time so that the judicial review process is done before the end of the Trump term, Buckheit said.
Sheila Olmstead, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an adviser to Obama, said the White House plowed on with executive orders and regulations to ease protections for the environment in a 180-degree reversal from the Obama years, even as it saw early setbacks on healthcare and immigration campaign promises.
Trump officials are weakening a rule that would speed a shift away from electricity made from burning coal which causes early deaths and spews heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They are also loosening standards for how companies discard coal ash, despite the fact that it is spilling into waterways in North Carolina following Hurricane Florence.
Trump agencies are freezing mandates that new cars use less gasoline and pollute less, and they are cutting limits on potent methane gas released by the oil industry. They are rescinding an effort to give the federal government jurisdiction over more waterways. The EPA is also rejecting science that shows some pesticides make people sick.
Theyre moving forward on many fronts, said Alan Krupnick of the environmental group Resources for the Future. I think they could well be saying we want to just throw as much stuff out there so if a Democrat wins in 2020, or we lose in the interim, itll take a longer time to undo things.
Jeff Holmstead, a partner at the law firm Bracewell, who was in charge of the air office in George W Bushs EPA, agreed Trump rules might be left in legal limbo, but said the administration is trying to make changes stick.
If Trump is a one-term president, you may very well end up in the same situation the Obama folks did in the administration where a number of things they promulgated were still pending in the courts and the Trump administration chose not to defend them, Holmstead said.
At the heart of the Trump administration rollbacks is a fundamental disagreement about how to count the costs and health benefits of regulation. Critics of the administration also charge that the government is doing the bidding of fossil fuel corporations. Most Trump officials dont acknowledge man-made climate change, although agency analysis has recognized temperatures could rise 7F (about 4C) by 2100.
In most of its reversals, the Trump administration argues the costs of rules were higher and the benefits lower than Obama officials predicted.
Trump officials want to ignore many pollution reductions that exceed a rules specific goal.
For example, Obama-era rules would have shut down coal plants earlier than expected. That would lead to fewer greenhouse gas emissions and cleaner air.
But Trumps EPA would count only the small impact the single rule would have on slowing climate change, without considering wider benefits.
The US government also wants to consider only the benefits to the US of curbing climate change, ignoring the benefits elsewhere that are far more vulnerable, such as island nations facing rapidly rising seas.
Holmstead, who represents power companies, argued that government agencies under Trump are being much more honest and transparent, with their accounting by giving a range of estimates to emphasize uncertainty. He said cost-benefit studies are not an exact science.
But many air experts say that kind of thinking ignores how much air pollution shortens lives.
Costs are very well understood and theyre very well documented, said Miles Keogh, executive director of a group that represents state and local air regulators, the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. What we dont do very well is the benefit of protection. The impacts are extremely distributed both in terms of whos impacted and when theyre impacted, whereas the costs are very concentrated, and theyre very easy to document and measure.
David Doniger, climate director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Trump administration is rolling back the rules as a delay tactic.
He said: In some ways they are a retreating army, trying to destroy the railroad tracks as they retreat,. They cant think they can win this, in the sense of a permanent hold off of the need to address climate change.