Trump’s ‘Blitzkrieg Against the Environment’ Speeds Up as COVID Distracts, Election Nears
The COVID-19 pandemic has become the latest pretext for Donald Trump to shower his fossil industry benefactors with support, with the White House accelerating its rollback of environmental regulations, a key U.S. government agency foregoing royalties on oil and gas drilling on public lands, and fossil companies set to cash in from a coronavirus bond buyback program instituted by the Federal Reserve.
(This recap captures only the smallest fraction of the fossil bailout news flowing from the United States, even as most other industrialized countries explore or commit to pandemic stimulus programs that build their economies back better by relying on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other green recovery measures.)
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The New York Times documents precisely 100 climate and environmental rules the administration has undercut. Citing multiple sources of academic research, the Times says 66 of those regulations have been “officially reversed, revoked, or otherwise rolled back” over the last nearly 3½ years, with the other 34 still under attack. Of the 100, 27 deal with air pollution and emissions, 20 with drilling and extraction, 12 with infrastructure and planning, and 11 each with water pollution or animals.
And now, “during the COVID-19 lockdown, US. federal agencies have eased fuel efficiency standards for new cars; frozen rules for soot air pollution; proposed to drop review requirements for liquefied natural gas terminals; continued to lease public property to oil and gas companies; sought to speed up permitting for offshore fish farms; and advanced a proposal on mercury pollution from power plants that could make it easier for the government to conclude regulations are too costly to justify their benefits,” The Guardian reports. “The government has also relaxed reporting rules for polluters during the pandemic. Trump’s ambitions reach even to the moon, which he has announced he wants the U.S. to mine.”
In mid-May, nine states sued the government for rolling back clean air and water rules during the pandemic, asserting the new policy “is too broad and not transparent,” Reuters reports.
The Guardian adds that the Trump administration “is playing both offence and defence, rescinding and rewriting some rules and crafting others that would be time-consuming for a Democratic president to reverse.” Gina McCarthy, the former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator who now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the government is cutting public health protections at a moment when the more day-to-day aspects of public health are monopolizing citizens’ attention.
“People right now are hunkered down trying to put food on the table, take care of people who are sick, worry about educating their children at home,” she said. “How many people are going to really be able to sit down and scrutinize these things in any way?”
Officials in Trump’s administration “have been attempting to create a coronavirus relief program for oil and gas corporations, a new move in his campaign to back the industry and stymie global climate action,” The Guardian adds. “Historians say Trump’s presidency has forced a pendulum swing back from the environmental awakening of the 1960s and 70s, when there was bipartisan support for conservation. Protecting the environment—and particularly the climate—is an issue that has become embroiled in political ideology.”
“Over the past three years, we have fulfilled [Donald Trump]’s promises to provide certainty for states, tribes, and local governments,” an EPA spokesperson told the Times, building on the failed real estate magnate and former reality TV star’s “commitment to return the agency to its core mission: Providing cleaner air, water, and land to the American people.”
Adding a dose of reality to the story, “environmental and legal groups said the rollbacks have not served that mission,” the Times writes, with Hana Vizcarra, staff attorney at Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program, stating that Trump’s EPA “has often limited its own power to regulate environmental harm, especially when it comes to climate change”. In response, “many of the rollbacks have faced legal challenges by states, environmental groups, and others, and some could remain mired in court beyond November, regardless of the outcome of the election.”
The Times’ overview includes links to news coverage of each of the regulatory measures Trump has targeted, including 10 that were rolled back but subsequently reinstated.
“What Trump’s done is create a blitzkrieg against the environment…trying to dismantle not just Obama’s environmental achievements but turn back the clock to a pre-Richard Nixon day,” Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley told The Guardian. “It’s just death by a thousand cuts. It’s not one issue, it’s just across the board.”
The Guardian cites the sources of pushback against the Trump agenda, noting NRDC’s boast that it has sued the administration 110 times, amassing a 90% win rate for the cases that have been resolved. Meanwhile, state governments are advancing their own environmental goals, “and low-cost renewable power and natural gas [are] helping reduce the climate footprint of the electricity sector. Even Houston, an energy hub, has issued a climate action plan,” recently accelerating its 100% renewable energy target by five years.
All of those commitments combined “are not expected to be enough to fulfill America’s role in stalling the global crisis,” The Guardian says. But with the U.S. election now just 161 days away [yes, we’ve been checking our countdown app regularly—Ed.], “the administration is under a tight deadline to secure changes before the election. A U.S. law, the Congressional Review Act, allows lawmakers to more easily rescind regulations or rollbacks issued later in an election year,” as Republicans tried to do in the months after their candidate seized power in 2017.
“They’re hitting a now or never timeline,” said ClearView Energy Partners Managing Director Christine Tezak. “There’s a lot they want to get done before the election, just in case.”
The federal push has included an effort by the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, to suspend legally-mandated royalties that fossils must pay when they drill for oil and gas on public lands in many western states. “Several BLM state offices confirmed to High Country News that they are carrying out these policies,” the Paonia, Colorado-based publication writes in an exclusive report, and “these new directives are not outliers. Despite the pandemic, the BLM appears to be encouraging public lands drilling, rather than pressing operators to shut in wells and not produce oil.”
Lease sales have been held over the past few months in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming, and “a September auction could make more than 100,000 acres of public land available for drilling just outside Canyonlands and Arches national parks in Utah. No such aid has been offered to renewable energy industries, which have also suffered in the downturn. Instead, the Interior Department hit solar and wind projects on federal land with large retroactive rent bills in mid-May.”
The new oil and gas leases won’t have much impact in today’s glutted oil market, Mark Squillace, professor of natural resource law at University of Colorado Law School, told High Country News. “But since federal oil and gas leases last 10 years—and companies often get them extended—operators can grab cheap leases now and sit on them until oil prices rebound, while the lease suspensions and royalty rate reduction provide short-term relief on existing wells.” That means the BLM “is offering lease sales at the exactly wrong time, selling valuable oil and gas properties during a down market.”
“It looks like an effort to exploit COVID-19 to give away public resources in ways that are ultimately quite destructive,” Squillace said.
A BLM staffer who declined to be identified told HCN the new rules were unnecessary and violated agency procedures. “The guidance was written at the highest levels of the BLM Washington office (or DOI) without consultation from the usual BLM experts,” s/he told the publication. “The guidance was not reviewed internally by BLM personnel who would be implementing it, and was definitely not checked to make sure it conforms to regulation. This is highly unusual.”
Meanwhile, in an exclusive report earlier this month, The Guardian said U.S. fossils were getting set for a “coronavirus bailout bonanza” as part of a US$750-billion bond buyback program developed by the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank. The program was intended to benefit thousands of companies across the economy by the end of September. But “at least 90 fossil fuel companies, many of them established giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Koch Industries, stand to gain,” along with “more than 150 utilities, including coal-heavy firms such as American Electric Power and Duke Energy,” the paper wrote, citing research by the Rainforest Action Network. Ten 10 of the country’s top 40 fracking companies would also be eligible to apply under the program.
“Our concern is that these recovery funds should be prioritizing people and communities, and they are going instead to big companies to pay down their debts,” said RAN senior campaigner Jason Disterhoft. That concern was amplified in mid-May by a Bloomberg story that profiled Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc., a U.S. fossil that took a $9.7-million tax refund under a Congressional pandemic stimulus bill, then asked a bankruptcy judge to “authorize the same amount as bonuses to nine executives”.
The company “is one of dozens of oil companies and contractors now claiming hundreds of millions of dollars in tax rebates. They are employing a provision of the $2.2-trillion stimulus law, called the CARES act, that gives them more latitude to deduct recent losses,” the news agency explains.
“This is a stealth bailout for the oil and gas industry,” said Documented senior researcher Jesse Coleman, backstopping companies “that have been losing money over the last few years—and now they get that money back as a cheque from the taxpayers. That’s exactly what the oil industry has been doing.”
“The recovery is a choice between propping up the fragile fossil fuel industry and building the resilient green economy we need. The list of who is eligible for the Fed’s massive bond purchase programs, including struggling frackers, coal companies, and supermajors, shows what’s at stake,” RAN’s Disterhoft added. “Recovery funds have to go to workers and environmental clean-up first, not bonuses or dividends, and companies should be required to stop expanding fossil fuels and phase out their fossil business—otherwise, we’re just lighting public money on fire and locking in the coming climate crash into the bargain.”
While the COVID bailouts are a recent development, Trump’s deregulatory firestorm has been intense and wide-ranging enough that, if present trends hold and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden becomes the next U.S. president, “it will take years to reverse some changes,” The Guardian says. “Moving faster would require Democrats holding both chambers of Congress (which is looking less and less impossible). Even then, industry would fight hard.”
Christopher Cook, chief of environment, energy, and open space for the city of Boston, noted that the more polluted parts of the U.S. are also faring worse in the pandemic.
“The thing I would ask most Americans to consider when they’re supporting stronger regulation is that this isn’t about what we’re protecting against, this is about who we’re protecting,” he told The Guardian. “COVID has been a dry run for the climate crisis. We’ve seen the populations that COVID affects because it attacks the respiratory system. We can’t continue with bad air in America.”