While No One Was Watching — Changing Enviro Regs Under Trump

May 27, 2020

SEJ News: While No One Was Watching — Changing Enviro Regs Under Trump

By Dale Willman

I know this risks sounding like what my kids call a “grandpa story,” but context is important, particularly when talking about environmental regulation. Most Americans alive today were born after April 20, 1970, so have no personal frame of reference for what the country’s environment looked like before the first Earth Day, but it was not good.

President Trump promised during his election campaign that he would increase U.S. coal production. Donora, Pa. Photo: Dale Willman. Click to enlarge.

In the late 1960s, much of the nation was plagued by rampant air and water pollution. Litter was so severe that Lady Bird Johnson (little known fact — her real name was Claudia) began a beautification campaign that included picking up debris along the nation’s highways. Trash was seemingly dumped just about everywhere. And yes, rivers even caught fire from the chemical waste poured into our waterways.

The first Earth Day in 1970 galvanized what had been a growing environmental movement that gained legitimacy with the release of the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1962. Millions of people protested for change that day, leading to the 1970s becoming known as the environmental decade. Starting with the signing into law of the National Environmental Policy Act on January 1, 1970, many of the laws key to how we now regulate the environment were passed in just ten years.

Today, some of the regulations that sprang from those laws and others are under attack. According to a recent accounting (may require subscription) by the New York Times, the Trump administration has attempted to reverse almost 100 environmental rules in less than four years — regulations that were aimed at reducing auto emissions, lowering mercury emissions from power plants (both may require subscription) and more.

In a recent webinar, three environmental law experts — Michael Burger of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Ann Carlson of the UCLA Law School and James McElfish of the Environmental Law Institute — discussed the current regulatory landscape. The webinar was hosted by the Media Resilience Project, which is part of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. It was co-sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists.


After Obama, Trump rollbacks

While the Obama presidency was not known for being overly strong on environmental issues, toward the end of his administration, Obama did score a number of successes. He protected more federal land and water than any of his predecessors. He also declared a permanent drilling ban on much of the U.S. territory in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, and signed the Paris Agreement dealing with climate change.

It was apparent though that the country’s environmental focus would shift if Donald Trump became president. Burger says Trump was quite clear during the campaign about what he would do. “Trump ran on a platform of climate denial and with a number of pledges to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement and to counteract the Clean Power Plan and to roll back climate regulations across the board, as well as a more generally anti-environmental set of commitments.”

Carlson says that, once in office, the Trump administration quickly attempted to alter the regulatory landscape. “The Trump administration came out with guns blazing to roll back a lot of rules.” But she says the changes were immediately challenged. “They also got slapped down by a lot by courts for failing to follow proper procedures, failing to follow things like basic notice and comment.”


‘[I]t’s not the orders that matter so much as 

what’s happening in the agencies that are 

carrying these out and how far along they are in

cementing into regulation those policy priorities.’

— James McElfish, Environmental Law Institute


Since those early failures, though, many changes have been made. McElfish places those changes in a couple of broad categories. “The two buckets are regulatory reform — revision kinds of orders — and then orders that are directed at specific natural resource or regulatory outcomes.” And, he says, there are a lot of them. But that’s not what is most important. “What I think is interesting at this point is it’s not the orders that matter so much as what’s happening in the agencies that are carrying these out and how far along they are in cementing into regulation those policy priorities that were set up largely in the first six months of the Trump administration.”

It’s not uncommon for an administration to change priorities, for the environment and many other issues. When President Reagan took office, the changes he made to environmental policy initially were considered extreme. President Clinton offered a different direction, and some of his changes were then reversed when President Bush was elected. But what is different here, says Burger, in addition to the scale of the changes, are the circumstances in which some of the changes are being made. “What we’re really seeing is an attempt to, in many respects, disregard congressional intent and disregard the purpose, the meaning and the commands of legislation that was enacted by Congress in order to provide public benefits to the American people in the form of environmental protections.”

Join Burger, Carlson and McElfish for the rest of the conversation by watching the video below. And be sure to check below for our journalist resources and story ideas.





Other Resources


Articles of Interest


Story idea

In the 1970s the EPA ran a program called Documerica. They hired photographers to take images of the state of the environment in the U.S. These photos are available free of charge for use. Reporters can find images from their communities, compare them to how the same sites look today and track what changes in environmental regulations might mean to those sites in the future.

[Editor’s Note: This report first appeared on the Earth Institute’s “State of the Planet” blog and is cross-posted here with permission, in a slightly modified form.]

Dale Willman has been an award-winning correspondent, editor, trainer and teacher for more than 40 years. Currently, Willman is a program manager for the City University of New York, where he has created a resilience fellowship for journalists. He also fills in as a newscaster for National Public Radio, where he previously worked for more than 12 years in Washington, D.C. Willman has organized workshops for the Society of Environmental Journalists on a broad array of topics, and serves SEJ as a project consultant and programs associate.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 21. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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