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March Madness in the Beltway

This past month, the Trump administration made speedy work of environmental deregulation

The United States is only 72 days into Donald Trump's presidency, and is already witnessing drastic changes to environmental policy and regulation. With so much information out there, it is too easy for important changes to get lost in the shuffle. Here are some of the biggest environmental changes from just the past month.

photo of power plant emissionsPhoto by Rich, Flickr From proposing deep funding cuts to environmental agencies to beginning the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, Trump spent much of March rolling back environmental regulations.

Budget cuts to environment-focused government agencies — In the 2018 budget blueprint released in mid-March, the Trump Administration outlined large cuts to agencies that regulate environmental policy and protection in the US. Major cuts included funding for the Interior Department, which would see its lowest budget in 21 years, and for the Environmental Protection Agency, which would have its funding cut to the lowest level ever, according to a New York Times report. The budget is now in Congress’s hands, where it will be voted on by the committees that oversee spending for different agencies. Congressional Democrats, along with many Republicans, have made clear their opposition to the blueprint.

Dismantling the Clean Power Plan — Earlier this week, Trump signed an executive order that begins the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan. The CPP is the signature climate policy of the Obama administration, aimed at helping the US meet its emissions reduction targets outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement by closing coal-fired power plants and scaling up clean energy production. The executive order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to review and rewrite the plan. The agency will almost certainly face legal challenges.

Coal leasing on federal land — The same order that targets the Clean Power Plan also addresses a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands, instituted last year. Trump’s executive order, issued on March 28, made it possible for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to lift the moratorium. Zinke promptly did so on March 29. He also issued a directive for the Department of the Interior to abandon a review of the federal coal leasing program, which began in 2015.

Fracking deregulation — President Trump’s far-reaching March 28 order also addresses fracking regulations issued in 2015. The order directs the Interior Department to reanalyze the rule, which regulates many aspects of fracking, including the design of wells and wastewater holding ponds, and which requires companies to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process.

Keystone XL Pipeline resurrected — In his first days as president, Donald Trump signed an executive order reviving the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project President Obama rejected back in 2015. Last week, President Trump issued a presidential permit to TransCanada to allow construction of the pipeline. The project still faces approval by the Nebraska Public Lands Commission, as well as some landowners whose water rights could be impacted, and environmental groups have filed suit to stop the project.

Car emissions standards lowered — In mid-March, Trump took aim at the Obama administration’s fuel efficiency rules, meant to reduce carbon emissions by increasing mile-per-gallon requirements for new cars and light trucks. Obama’s standards are locked in through 2021, but the EPA still can lower emissions standards for 2022 to 2025 models. The EPA and Department of Transportation are now tasked with reviewing the existing standards and have until April 2018 to decide if they will go ahead with weakening these standards. According to a June 2016 poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 84 percent of Americans support improving fuel efficiency in new cars.

Safety regulations for industrial facilities delayed — EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the administration would delay the implementation of new safety regulations for industrial facilities such as chemical plants and oil refineries. The updated regulations were called for following a 2013 explosion at a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in Texas that killed 15 people, though it was later discovered the cause of the blast may have been arson. Implementation has been delayed until at least June 19, and Pruitt has initiated a formal process to consider repeal.

Hold on Obama-era clean water rule — This rollback didn’t quite happen in March, but it’s big enough news to make the cut. At the end of February, Trump signed an executive order to repeal a 2015 rule asserting the government’s right to limit pollution in large bodies of water and wetlands, as well as in the bodies of water that feed them. The Obama-era rule faced staunch pushback and litigation from a variety of interests, including fertilizer companies and golf courses, that argued it put undue pressure on farmers and was bad for the economy. Mired in court battles, the rule was never implemented, and given that it is now destined for EPA revisions, it seems unlikely that the protections it promised will be realized.

Erin Banks Rusby
Erin Banks Rusby is an intern at Earth Island Journal. A transplant from the greater Seattle area to the San Francisco peninsula, Erin works with volunteers on projects to help restore native south Bay Area ecosystems. She is exploring pursuing a career in environmental journalism.

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