Like a defeated and retreating army, Trump administration officials left Washington, D.C., burning and shredding environmental laws and policies even as they walked out the door.
The scorched earth policy of unraveling Obama-era initiatives in favor of widespread deregulation began four years ago, and entailed many dozens of rules and policies. Included are rollbacks of regulations that protect endangered wildlife, migratory birds and wetlands, and regulate clean air, planet-warming gases and energy efficiency.
California Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld called it “vandalism.”
“We thought the world had ended after (President George W.) Bush, but it looks like a picnic compared to what Trump’s done,” Blumenfeld told CalMatters. “It’s been very surgical, very intentional and incredibly comprehensive.”
Now President Joe Biden’s cabinet is left with the task of eliminating so many environmental rollbacks that it will have to perform triage: The Trump administration and Congress took at least 175 actions to roll back climate change rules and policies, plus several dozen that regulate other environmental problems, according to trackers compiled by Harvard and Columbia University.
The president suggested that nearly every move by the Trump administration related to the environment merits a second look: He immediately ordered federal agencies to review scores of federal actions taken during the last four years to determine if they harmed public health or the environment.
“It is…the policy of my Administration to listen to science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable…,” Biden wrote in an executive order on his first day in office.
Biden immediately rejoined the Paris climate agreement for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And he reconstituted a governmental group to examine the impacts of greenhouse gases on public health and social justice.
He also issued a directive to his staff to “consider revising vehicle fuel economy and emissions standards.” California has the nation’s worst air quality, so this issue is arguably one of the most pressing environmental problems facing the state.
He also ordered a review of Trump rules that relaxed limits on methane leaks from oil and gas operations and loosened some energy efficiency standards.
The cascade of rollbacks in Trump’s last days in office left plenty for the new president to undo. The feds have an ally in their coming work: California backstops some of the regulatory unraveling with its own laws.
The state also has been leading the legal charge to halt many of them, including relaxed air quality and pesticide regulations. On a single day — the day before the inauguration — California filed suit against the Trump administration nine times, seeking to overturn its last-minute moves to weaken national environmental laws and policies.
“In the past few years, the White House abdicated its responsibility on key issues like climate change, wildfires, and infrastructure. But every time we lacked for a partner, California stepped up anyway. We accelerated our clean car efforts and made record investments in wildfire mitigation,” Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter to Biden the day before his inauguration.
About the Authors
Julie Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environment reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where she held many positions: sportswriter, national correspondent and environment reporter. Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master’s degree to become a journalist via the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing.