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Six ways Trump is rolling back environmental protections during a public health emergency

Six ways Trump is rolling back environmental protections during a public health emergency

Credit: National Institutes of Health

The United States faces a severe respiratory health emergency from the spread of the novel coronavirus — leading local, state and federal governments to make extreme closures and take actions that might have seemed unimaginable just weeks ago. Large swaths of the economy have shut down, leading nearly three million Americans to file for unemployment in a single week. Many cities and states have imposed ‘shelter in place’ directives on their residents, prohibiting them from leaving their homes except for necessities. The federal government has struggled to procure adequate resources for medical professionals including masks, gloves, and respirators. COVID-19 poses an unprecedented threat to the most vulnerable members of our society — especially to people with underlying respiratory conditions like asthma.

In the face of this crisis, you might expect that the Trump administration would do its job to protect the public, either through pausing unrelated agency actions or at least by ensuring that the air Americans breathe is clean and free of pollution. Unfortunately, even with much of the federal government moved to working remotely, Trump’s dirty deputies at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of the Interior (DOI) have used this moment to continue their work on behalf of the fossil fuel industry — with giveaways to Big Oil and rollbacks of environmental protections, including today’s announcement weakening standards for pollution from automobiles. Below, we track some of the ways that the Trump administration is undermining public health, mismanaging public resources and putting its fossil fuel executive friends ahead of the American people during an unprecedented health crisis.

EPA suspends enforcement, limits scientific input, and gives wins to Big Oil

Finalizing the dirty cars rule

When former coal lobbyist and current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that his agency would lead a rollback of the clean cars standards put into place under President Obama, he promised that it would lower prices for consumers, increase safety, and create jobs. Yet with today’s announcement of the final rule, during a respiratory pandemic, there is ample evidence that he’s done the exact opposite. Repealing the existing standards and putting in place the Trump administration’s final rule has been shown to contribute to more premature deaths from increased air pollution than it will prevent, increase costs for consumers at the pump, and threaten tens of thousands of jobs in the automobile industry and beyond. As the American people struggle to slow a pandemic, studies have found that increased air pollution — like that which will be produced by automobiles as a result of this egregious rollback — is linked with higher rates of respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or pneumonia, which have accompanied most deaths from COVID-19. Big Oil has pushed for this rollback since early in the Trump administration, and now they’re getting their wish.

EPA drops enforcement of pollution limits at request of Big Oil

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Petroleum Institute (API) and other special interests requested relaxed enforcement for, among other things, pollution from oil and gas operations including refineries and power plants. EPA responded to these requests by announcing that these polluters would be allowed to determine for themselves if they were complying with laws regarding pollution — and simply to “act responsibly” if they could not do so, essentially abdicating enforcement of pollution limits indefinitely. Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy called this action ‘an open license to pollute,’ given the breadth and scope of the order and how many facilities it potentially impacts. This waiver especially threatens communities of color and low income communities, who are more likely to live near polluting facilities, and may have multiple sources of pollution in their neighborhoods — exacerbating environmental justice issues. It is nearly unfathomable that during a public health crisis, the EPA has chosen to abandon its core responsibility — protecting the clean air and water that is the right of all Americans — in favor of the requests of fossil fuel executives.

EPA moves forward with ‘Secret Science’ rule

Potentially the most damaging way the EPA is working to undermine public health in the midst of a pandemic is publishing the first draft of the so-called “secret science rule,” which would bar the use of studies that use non-public information in future policy directives set by the agency. While this move might sound benign, in effect it would ban the use of nearly all medical research, which requires a certain level of privacy protections for those who participate, in setting policies. For example, acceptable air pollution limits for various regions could no longer be determined using clinical medical studies looking at the impacts of that pollution on subjects. Opponents of the proposal like Senator Tom Carper have noted that in several concrete ways, it could hamper the EPA’s ability to respond to COVID-19 by limiting the agency’s use of medical data. The agency is currently taking comments on the proposal, and they have refused to extend the comment period in order to take input from, for example, public health practitioners currently overwhelmed by the COVID-19 epidemic.

Interior Department pushes ahead with giveaways to the oil and gas industry

Fire sales of public lands and waters continue during a pandemic

In the midst of an oil glut and market uncertainty that has significantly depressed prices, the Interior Department is pushing ahead with oil and gas lease sales on federal lands and waters that belong to all Americans. In the Gulf of Mexico, the Interior Department’s sale of 78 million acres offshore generated bids on less than one percent of the acres offered, and garnered just $93 million — a far cry from the $160 million brought in by a comparable sale last August.

Onshore lease sales held during the pandemic have netted similarly dismal results. The Trump administration’s oil and gas lease sales in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming in the third week of the pandemic sold less than half of the acres offered, with 41 percent selling for the minimum bid of just $2 per acre. Interior’s business-as-usual approach during this global health crisis exacerbates the systemic fiscal problems in the department’s energy programs, and ensures that taxpayers are receiving an especially poor return from industry’s extractive use of these resources. Despite calls from groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense and Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship to suspend all oil and gas lease sales in 2020, the Trump administration is showing no signs of slowing down this effective giveaway to the oil and gas industry.

Cutting the public out of public lands

The Interior Department is moving forward with significant land management plans and rulemakings despite the public’s inability to meaningfully participate. For example, just days after the World Health Organization declared a global health pandemic, the Interior Department closed a comment period on a proposed rule to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, issued a draft plan for a major oil and gas project in Alaska, and gave the public just 10 days to protest a 45,000 acre oil and gas lease sale in New Mexico. At the same time, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt cited COVID-19 as the justification for indefinitely shuttering the Bureau of Land Management’s stakeholder advisory councils, which allow expert input in decisions around fossil fuel development and land use planning. The National Governors Association, National Association of Counties, and U.S. Conference of Mayors are among the organizations that have called on the Trump administration to formally pause all public comment periods to recognize that state, local and tribal governments’ limited resources are needed to focus on the immediate pandemic response. By muting advisory boards and letting the clock run on comment periods, the Interior Department is effectively shutting out the public.

Gross mismanagement of National Parks during a public health crisis

While the Centers for Disease Control called on the public to practice social distancing and stay close to home, Secretary Bernhardt directed his department to waive entrance fees at national parks and public lands. The signal encouraged visitors to travel to public lands in the midst of a pandemic and contributed to large crowds and packed parking lots at many national parks. The flood of visitors puts park rangers, their families, and gateway communities — particularly those with limited health infrastructure — at grave risk. While some parks have been allowed to close, Bernhardt has ignored requests from his own superintendents, from local governments and from tribes to close certain parks and facilities, including the Grand Canyon. Further complicating matters, national park staff say they have been directed to avoid answering questions about COVID-19 cases at their parks, creating a dearth of public health information at a critical time. Secretary Bernhardt’s entrance fee gimmick and gross mismanagement of national parks during the pandemic are, in short, putting lives at risk.


In parallel with the Trump administration’s full-steam-ahead approach of removing critical public health protections, corporate fossil fuel special interests see this crisis as an opportunity to further push their agenda. The National Mining Association (NMA) sent a letter requesting relief from obligations around abandoned mine land reclamation and — disturbingly — an exemption from paying into the Black Lung Excise Tax, once again at a time of a respiratory emergency. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) both asked for changes to requirements to switch to summer fuels aimed at reducing smog — low-hanging locally concentrated pollution that can exacerbate lung conditions that make people more vulnerable to hospitalization from COVID-19. While there has never been a good time to loosen the protections that ensure clean air, it is hard to imagine a worse time than the present moment. We need government agencies that work for people, not polluters.

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