Analysis: Trump Administration Incompetence Helped Save Environmental Regulations

4 min
President Trump announcing his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accords on June 1, 2017.  (Brendan SmialowskiI/AFP/Getty Images)

President-elect Joe Biden has said that the environment and climate change will be top priorities of his administration. On Jan. 20, Biden will not only take the helm of a country shaken by climate-driven disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, but also inherit the consequences of the Trump administration's rollback of environmental regulations.

To discuss what experts and environmentalists think Biden needs to do to repair U.S. environmental and climate policy, and also the relative ineffectiveness of the Trump administration's attacks on environmental regulation, KQED's Brian Watt spoke with Rolling Stone magazine's chief research editor, Hannah Murphy, who wrote in September about the environmental challenges a Biden administration would face. The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

So how bad is it? How much damage did Trump manage to do to environmental regulations?

Hannah Murphy: It depends on how you measure it. The Trump administration came in with one of the most anti-environmental agendas in U.S. history, and we did see them roll back around 100 environmental regulations, which is enormous. That can't be discounted.

But the saving grace here is that, according to experts and advocates I talked to, the Trump administration was really quite bad at it. The rule-making process is very procedural. The administration was  predominantly making executive rules, and in that process they rushed through it. In many cases, they skipped over the public comment period, which is a key legal process in making these rules.

By doing that, they opened up an obvious opportunity to take them to court, where advocates have been incredibly successful. So far they've challenged more than 80 rules and won nearly 70 of them. So all of these have been tied up throughout the courts, and the administration hasn't seen any significant progress in its agenda. Instead they've really just cost us four years of time.

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So does Biden just go in and try to reinstate these regulations that Trump tried to roll back?

That's where we come back to the rule-making process. The big work that the Biden administration is going to have to do is spend 18 months to two years reinstating all of these regulations, and doing them correctly, unlike the Trump administration. He needs to learn from that process of cutting corners and really do it right. That will take the first half of his term, but it can really help them stick, because right now we also have a makeup of the courts that we weren't anticipating coming into this election. So these rules need to be bulletproof if they're going to not be challenged by a six to three Supreme Court.

What do the experts and advocates say that Biden should start on, Day One?

There are a lot of options. Just like we saw with the Trump administration, the executive branch has a lot of power to take action on environmental issues.

The most pronounced option is for the Biden administration to declare a national climate emergency. This would very explicitly reposition the U.S. as a player in the fight against climate change. Both nationally and internationally we've lost that standing in a lot of ways.

Not only would it send an important message, it would give the administration practical power to mobilize the government.  It would also allow the U.S. to use the might of the American military by directing it toward the challenges of climate change and clean energy development. And it would give them the tools necessary to treat climate change as serious of a crisis as it is.

But, does Biden have the mandate to do something that forceful?

Many advocates would argue he does. When the Obama administration took office, only 30% of Americans believed protecting the environment should be a top priority for the government. Now, two-thirds of Americans believe that. That is a dramatic change. Climate was a huge part of Biden's campaign, and it's part of what got him into office. I think the political mandate is there. As recently as September, Democratic voters were ranking climate change as one of the most important issues in this election.

You mention we have lost four years to climate inaction. Is there one thing Biden should do that would cut greenhouse gas emissions the most?

Transportation is key — it's the largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Trump administration loosened the Obama regulations for fuel economy standards, so we have a whole generation of cars being built under Trump's loosened rules; those vehicles are going to be on the road for 10 years. So restoring the fuel economy standards would be hugely impactful. The sooner we make those changes, the sooner we can rectify that.

Reports say that Mary Nichols, head of California's Air Resources Board, is on the short list to run the Environmental Protection Agency. How important would that be?

Biden's short list is ever evolving and includes some incredibly heavy hitters like Mary Nichols. Whoever does take that job has an enormous task ahead of them. The agency has been drained of staff; many people and advocates weren't willing to stay on board when the Trump administration took over. And then the administration moved staff out of D.C. — a lot of really bizarre moves. So the most important thing that whoever is in that role can do is on day one start rebuilding the agency. So whether it's Mary Nichols or any of the several other people on that short list, they have a huge job ahead of them.

President Trump has put his weight behind fossil fuels. What can Biden do that would redirect investment into renewable energy and jobs?

Biden's climate plan is in large part also a jobs plan. In redirecting job-building toward a focus on clean energy, you can move enormous amounts of research and resources toward this work. It's one of the enormous benefits of having a comprehensive climate plan.

But that is a much longer process, and Biden would actually have the power on day one to help keep more fossil fuels in the ground. Biden has a lot of tools that he can use right away. He can direct the secretary of the interior to halt oil and gas leasing and fracking on federal lands. We used to have a ban on exporting crude oil that he could reinstitute. He can halt the development of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Reports say President Trump is trying to fast-track oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. How likely is that to be successful?

Right now, it's hard to say because we don't know exactly how he plans to go about this. There are a couple of ways this could go.

This was I think the biggest concern heading into a potential second term for Trump, because in a lot of the conversations I had, I kept hearing, "Well, you can fix regulations, but you can't undrill a well."

But we won't have another four years of Trump, and this process takes longer than a couple of months. The Trump administration is going to rush this through. They have already made clear that they're not going to observe the traditional processes here, but any of these sales are very likely to be subject to review by agencies that are within the Biden administration come January, including the Bureau of Land Management and Justice Department. That process will take a month or two, and could allow the Biden White House to deny these leases.

Biden hasn't indicated how he plans to do that. Many advocates have argued that the scientific assessment of the areas that they've put up for sale isn't sound. And that is certainly one way the Biden administration could undermine this. So there are options. But we have to wait and see what the Trump administration does in the next couple months.

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