Markets & Companies

Environment Rollback Roils America

New President, Donald Trump, Downplays Pollution Control and Safety

31.03.2017 -

With the shock waves from 2016’s most unanticipated events – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president – still reverberating, the earth sometimes seems to be tilting off its axis. While both events have wrought cultural and political changes, the new regime in Washington’s drive to turn back the clock on environmental protection and chemical safety – punctuated temporarily by a jarring wobble over healthcare – has made the most heads spin.

The declared intention of Trump and his allies in Congress to free US industry from the need to comply with regulations parts of it find onerous specifically means dismantling as many of former President Barack Obama’s reforms as possible, which explains why in the weeks before the change in the oval office on Jan. 21 the lame duck administration worked feverishly to cast in stone as many rules as possible.

But with the stroke of a pen – and the Twitter app – shortly after assuming office the new power brokers began firing off missives. Before talking heads on radio, television and social media could catch up with what was to be done or undone, the new president had caught up with his campaign postures that clean air and water rules could be collateral damage in fighting a perceived “war on coal.”

Obama’s Climate Moves under Attack

At the end of March, the picture of what the rollback would entail came closer into focus. At a ceremony held on Mar. 28, symbolically in the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), often the “whipping boy” of the fossil fuels industry, Trump signed the “Energy Independence” order, which he said would make America free of foreign imports.

By killing Obama’s Clean Power Plan requiring states to curb CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants, the new president will be able to simultaneously support the coal industry and reinforce conservatives’ belief that global warming is a hoax made in China. In defending his proposal to cut funding for climate change programs, Trump called these a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Obama’s clean air act passed by executive order in 2015 was part of an effort to bring US emissions levels closer to the Paris Climate Accord target of holding global warming to 2°C. Halted by the US Supreme Court in February 2016 after the coal-mining state of West Virginia and the oil state of Texas sued, the law has never taken effect but plans for it can still be canceled.

Under Trump’s new order, coal-fired plants set to close because they did not meet emissions standards can now stay open. But his remarks that this will boost demand, curb imports and revive mining jobs were criticized by energy experts pointing to a consistent downturn in demand for coal. The US hardly imports any fuels, thanks not least to the fracking boom, which has flooded the country with cheap shale gas and made Europe’s feedstock importers green with envy.

Opponents Fight Depreciation of Green Technology

Undoing existing legislation can take years, and opponents have vowed to fight. Though for now they can take comfort that Trump has not followed up an election promise to pull the US out of the Paris treaty or bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases, some worry that extending the life of coal-fired plants signals to the world that the president does not regard climate change as something to be concerned about.

One prominent business leader, General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, took aim at Trump’s moves to downplay green technology. GE believes climate change should be addressed globally through multinational agreements, such as the Paris Accord, he said, adding: “We hope the US continues to play a constructive role in furthering solutions to these challenges, and at GE, we will continue to lead with our technology and actions.” Others noted that China is planning to invest $360 billion in environmentally-friendly technologies over the next three years.

As April began, it looked as if at least six of Obama’s executive orders aimed at slowing climate change and regulating carbon emissions, including one lifting a short-term ban on coal mining on public land, may face the axe. The controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines canceled under Obama will go ahead – by executive order from Trump, who has already vowed to slash his predecessor’s tougher automotive fuel efficiency standards.

Pushing the Country Backward

The previous administration’s clean water legislation is also under attack. In late February, the new president instructed the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to review and reconsider Obama’s 2015 Waters of the United States law – this, too, blocked by lawsuits. He called the legislation that seeks to more clearly define 1970s anti-pollution rules “destructive and horrible.” Trump’s reversal of the tougher water standards, a reaction to massive contamination of drinking water in the state of Michigan, could make it easier for agricultural and development interests to drain wetlands and small streams, critics believe.

Other planned moves toward deconstructing the US regulatory environment call for overturning tightened rules for chemical storage and abolishing the Chemical Safety Board (CSB). Legislation requiring inventories to be kept of chemicals stored in large quantities, passed in 2013 after an explosion at a Texas fertilizer warehouse killed 58 people and injured 17,000, has been criticized on grounds that knowing what is stored there could lead terrorists and other criminals to target the facilities.

Why Trump wants to abolish the CSB is unclear. Critics of the plan note that the board, which studies the causes of dangerous chemical accidents but has no rule-making authority, often uncovers process problems that regulators and sometimes even the companies have missed, potentially a win-win scenario.

EPA Itself under Threat

Essential for implementing and enforcing environmental and chemical safety rules, the EPA – established in 1970 under Republican President Richard Nixon at a time when pollution seriously threatened US air and water – is now itself under threat. During his first week in office, as a thank you to the regulation-is-an-intrusion-of-privacy faction whose support helped elect him, Trump placed a gag order on the environmental watchdog, freezing contracts, grants and outside agreements and barring it from speaking publicly.

The freeze on research agreements has since been removed, but the EPA’s moves are being closely watched. The choice of former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to head the cabinet-level office had already alarmed environmental advocates. The authority’s new boss is on record as filing 14 lawsuits against the agency, some contend at the behest of the state’s oil and gas industry.

Trump’s most recent challenge to environmental advocacy came in the guise of the 2018 federal budget, which foresees slashing EPA’s overall funding by over 30%. This includes massive cuts to financing of enforcement, leading some to question how the agency can perform tasks required under law. Some conservatives would like to see it disappear altogether. A first-term Republican congressman from Florida has introduced a bill to abolish the EPA.

In some cases, the agency will be asked to unravel rules it drafted. In any case, it will play a crucial role in implementing the revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 2016, now called the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st Century (LSCA). This requires all chemicals in commercial use to undergo risk assessment. Not nearly as restrictive as the EU’s REACh, it was initially championed by chemical producers as a way to establish uniform standards for assessing risks presented by chemicals in the marketplace.

While all sides hoped the long delayed bill would achieve more clarity on the regulatory front, the waters are being muddied by infighting among interest groups. At its passage, the EPA, which will be charged with updating the substances inventory – now with less money and a smaller staff – moved swiftly to meet the deadline and identify the relevant chemicals until activity was abruptly stopped by the White House intervention.

But with the timetable already tight, a review backlog has now built up, making producers nervous that authorization of chemicals could lag. American Chemistry Council President Cal Dooley lashed out at the EPA for demanding a toxicity review of products it had approved under earlier rules, though legislators instrumental in the act’s revision stressed that some rewritten rules require interpretation. The same could be needed for almost everything else happening in Washington these days, it seems.