A factory emits smoke in Newark, New Jersey. The Trump administration is proposing changes to the way such pollutants may be regulated. PHOTOGRAPH BY KENA BETANCUR, VIEWPRESS, CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES
The Trump administration has promised vast changes to U.S. science and environmental policy—and we’re tracking them here as they happen.
It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article periodically as news develops.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on March 31, 2017, and was last updated on July 5, 2018.
EPA ADMINISTRATOR SCOTT PRUITT RESIGNS
July 5, 2018
Media reports found that Pruitt had racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in first-class flights, a $43,000 soundproof office phone booth, and more than $1,500 in fountain pens. A recent CNN report also alleges that Pruitt made his staff omit parts of his schedule from the public record.
Pruitt also caught fire for asking his staff for personal help. Pruitt reportedly asked his unprecedentedly large security detail to turn on their emergency lights as he ran late to a meal at a chic D.C. French restaurant. He also asked his detail to track down his favorite lotion, and he asked his top aides to retrieve his dry cleaning, pick up snacks, track down used hotel mattresses, and help find his wife a job.
Beyond his cavalcade of scandals, Pruitt also brought abrupt changes to U.S. environmental policy.
He halted an Obama-era request that fossil-fuel producers track methane emissions and overruled EPA scientists’ plea to ban the insecticide chlorpyrifos. While Pruitt’s EPA moved to make the water contaminant PFAS a national priority, officials also reportedly sought to delay a CDC report about the compound’s toxicity.
The EPA under Pruitt moved hastily to end the Obama administration’s signature environmental policies. Pruitt stalled the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s effort to regulate power-plant emissions; wanted to weaken 2022-2025 car fuel economy standards; delayed the “Waters of the United States” rule for two years; and wanted to downwardly revise the “social cost of carbon,” a crucial stat when weighing the costs and benefits of fighting climate change.
Pruitt also advocated for the U.S. to leave the Paris climate accords—leaving the U.S. globally isolated on what scientists broadly agree is an environmental crisis.
In a contentious letter recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, two Harvard University researchers argue that the Trump administration’s environmental policies, as championed by Pruitt, could kill an additional 80,000 people per decade when compared to prior policy.
Deputy EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is now acting EPA administrator. He is widely expected to continue Pruitt’s policies.
WHITE HOUSE CUTS NASA CLIMATE MONITORING PROGRAM
May 9, 2018
Congress directed the CMS’s creation in 2010, but as Science reporter Paul Voosen notes, the March 2018 spending deal didn’t specifically dedicate funds to the program—giving the White House sufficient latitude to wind it down. Researchers say that CMS-supported work is particularly relevant to the global Paris Agreement, especially for verifying whether the nations of the world are actually meeting their pledges to reduce carbon emissions.
“If you cannot measure emissions reductions, you cannot be confident that countries are adhering to the agreement,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a Tufts University climate policy expert, in an interview with Science.
The move marks the latest efforts of the Trump administration, which has rejected the Paris Agreement and an array of prior U.S. climate policies, to downsize NASA’s climate science program. The White House has repeatedly called for the elimination of CMS and several other NASA climate missions, including the planned PACE, OCO-3, and CLARREO Pathfinder instruments. Trump officials also advocate the shutdown of the Earth-viewing instruments aboard DSCOVR, which have taken high-res pictures of our planet’s sunlit half nearly every hour since July 2015.
Despite the closure of CMS, NASA will continue to operate severalclimate-monitoring satellites, and the agency is scheduled to launch two climate instruments to the International Space Station by the end of 2018. “The winding down of the CMS research program does not curb NASA’s ability or commitment to monitoring carbon and its effects on our changing planet,” said NASA spokesperson Steve Cole in a statement to National Geographic.
Yet researchers contend that without CMS’s support, research into how to make sense of these data will slow.
“The topic of climate mitigation and carbon monitoring is maybe not the highest priority now in the United States,” said University of Maryland climate scientist George Hurtt, the CMS science team leader, in an interview with Science. “But it is almost everywhere else.”
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote to Harvard University scientist Daniel Jacob. The quote is actually from University of Maryland scientist George Hurtt.
EPA ISSUES CONTROVERSIAL RULE ON SCIENCE ‘TRANSPARENCY’
April 24, 2018
Industry and conservative groups have called for this change for some time, while some environmental groups warn that it could reduce the EPA’s ability to consider all the evidence available when making rules on tough questions like power plant emissions and the safety of everything from pesticides to consumer products.
In a letter, nearly 1,000 scientists (many of whom used to work at the EPA) asked Pruitt to abandon the proposal, which they said “would greatly weaken EPA’s ability to comprehensively consider the scientific evidence.” Much of the data that would be excluded is based on reviews of personal health information, which is often not publicly available because of privacy laws or practical challenges.
“This proposal would mean throwing out the studies we rely on to protect the public, for no good reason,” said Betsy Southerland, a longtime EPA scientist, in a press release from the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This would have an enormous and negative impact on the EPA’s ability to enforce the law and protect people’s health. Administrator Pruitt can’t carry out the basic responsibilities of his job if he insists that his agency ignore the evidence.”
The rule change is subject to a 30-day public comment period.
THREATENED SPECIES PROTECTION RULE UNDER REVIEW
April 2, 2018
In a surprise rule change submitted on Monday, the U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed removing what’s called the “blanket section 4(d) rule.” Since the 1970s, this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) policy has stated that by default, threatened species receive the full protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ESA affords wide-ranging protections to species on the brink of extinction, barring everything from outright poaching to coming too close to the species in the wild. These restrictions don’t automatically apply to threatened species, but section 4(d) of the ESA says that departments can protect threatened species at their discretion.
Historically, different departments have used this discretion in different ways. By default, FWS’s blanket section 4(d) rule gives threatened species every ESA protection, which regulators then clarify and whittle down. When the National Marine Fisheries Service lists a threatened species, however, it adds protections bit by bit.
The proposed removal of the blanket section 4(d) rule concerns environmental groups because it’s possible that the move would jeopardize protections for hundreds of threatened species, which aren’t yet facing the threat of extinction but could in the future.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, 294 species listed as threatened by the FWS are afforded protections only because of the blanket rule. The affected species include the northern spotted owl, the southern sea otter, the spotted seal, as well as eight species of coral and numerous plants.
“How are they going to deal with the species that are already listed as threatened?” asks Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “I think that’s pretty critical, because there’s no way they can publish 300 individual rules … This certainly looks like a regulatory rollback.”
That said, the rule change’s impact remains unclear. The proposed regulation hasn’t been released, and once it is, it will be subject to a period of public comment. The Interior Department has not yet responded to National Geographic’s emailed questions about the proposed rule change.
“The Center for Biological Diversity thinks it’s the worst-case scenario—it’s hard for me to assume that,” says Defenders of Wildlife vice president Bob Dreher, an FWS associate director during the Obama administration. “We are of course concerned, and we’re going to be watching it very, very carefully.”
In gearing up for the rule change, the Trump administration appears to be responding to two legal petitions filed in 2016 by the Pacific Legal Foundation—a conservative public-interest law firm—on behalf of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
The groups argue that by giving threatened species all ESA protections as a default, the blanket rule functionally eliminates the distinction between endangered and threatened species. They say the arrangement illegally flouts Congress and penalizes private landowners.
Jonathan Wood, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, maintains that rescinding the blanket rule won’t hurt conservation. He argues that if threatened species have fewer protections than endangered species, then private landowners have an incentive to help endangered species recover to threatened status—since the upgrade in status removes onerous regulations. (Read more about the debate over the Endangered Species Act.)
“Recovery for endangered species is abysmally low … By varying the protections, you better align the incentives of the property owners with the incentives of the endangered species,” he says. “Ideally, we boost that recovery rate.”
Environmental groups and Wood disagree vehemently on the ESA’s efficacy. But they agree on one major point: the text of the regulation may take months to be released, and until then, it’s unclear how threatened species will be treated.
“Without seeing the proposed rule and the reasons it gives, it’s hard to say too much,” says Wood.
That said, Dreher offers a word of caution to the Department of the Interior: “If they take an approach which leaves threatened species arbitrarily unprotected, you can be sure that we and other organizations will sue.”
EPA STARTS ROLLBACK OF CAR EMISSIONS STANDARDS
April 2, 2018
In July 2011, President Obama announced he would tighten regulations of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, with rules that were first finalized in August 2012. Under Obama-era policy, cars and light-duty trucks would be required to have average fuel efficiencies equivalent to 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025.
About a sixth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 came from passenger cars and light-duty trucks. Overall, the Obama program would’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 6 billion metric tons—more than the total CO2 the U.S. emitted in 2016.
The EPA committed to finishing a midterm evaluation of the 2022-2025 standards by no later than April 1, 2018. On January 12, 2017, outgoing Obama EPA administrator Gina McCarthy finalized the evaluation and reaffirmed the stringent emissions standards.
At the time, car manufacturers argued that the 2022-2025 standards were unrealistic, expensive, and politically rushed. The Trump administration has enthusiastically echoed these sentiments; it restarted the midterm evaluation in March 2017.
“The Obama administration’s determination was wrong,” Pruitt said in a statement. “Obama’s EPA cut the Midterm Evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high.”
Automakers struck a guardedly pleased tone in releases about the announcement, seemingly leery that they may be getting more rollbacks out of the Trump EPA than they originally bargained for. Already, environmental and public health groups are voicing fierce opposition.
“Starting a process to weaken clean car standards marks yet another step backward from the fight to curb climate change,” said Harold P. Wimmer, the national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a statement. “Climate change poses serious threats to millions of people, especially to some of the most vulnerable Americans, including children, older adults and those living with chronic diseases such as asthma.”
“Pruitt’s rollback of the EPA clean car standards is a U-turn in the fight against climate change. We don’t know exactly how far the agency will back-track until they publish new standards, but we can be sure that it will make achieving a low-carbon transportation system more difficult and likely more expensive,” wrote Luke Tonachel, the clean vehicles director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.
Globally, lowering U.S. emissions standards could bolster other countries to weaken their own emissions standards. Within the U.S., a rollback would set up a legal trench war between the EPA and the state of California. Under a waiver it received at the dawn of the EPA, California has the authority to set its own, more stringent emissions standards. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia—in all, a third of the U.S. population—follow California’s lead.
“We’re ready to file suit if needed to protect these critical standards and to fight the administration’s war on our environment,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement. “California didn’t become the sixth-largest economy in the world by spectating.”
ZINKE OFFERS SUPPORT FOR GRIZZLIES IN NORTH CASCADES
March 23, 2018
“The grizzly bear is part of the environment, as it once was here. It’s part of a healthy environment,” he said according to The Seattle Times.
Zinke said that by the end of 2018, U.S. officials would complete a plan for returning the grizzly bear to the North Cascades, a rugged ecosystem that straddles the U.S. state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that fewer than 50 grizzly bears now live in the region, which is isolated from other grizzly populations in North America.
In 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the North Cascades grizzly bear warranted an endangered listing under the Endangered Species Act. The following year, the Seattle Times reports that the Obama administration announced a three-year recovery study. In 2017, the study was halted; now, with Zinke’s support, it will presumably continue.
FEMA EXPELS “CLIMATE CHANGE” FROM STRATEGIC PLAN
March 16, 2018
The plan, published on March 15, says that one of the agency’s major strategic goals is to “ready the nation for catastrophic disasters.” As NPR noted, it does discuss the potential for rising disaster costs:
Disaster costs are expected to continue to increase due to rising natural hazard risk, decaying critical infrastructure, and economic pressures that limit investments in risk resilience. As good stewards of taxpayer dollars, FEMA must ensure that our programs are fiscally sound. Additionally, we will consider new pathways to long-term disaster risk reduction, including increased investments in pre-disaster mitigation.
In a statement to NPR, FEMA Public Affairs Director William Booher said that “this strategic plan fully incorporates future risks from all hazards regardless of cause.”
In the plan, FEMA does not elaborate on the causes of “rising natural hazard risk,” which include human-caused climate change. As National Geographic previously reported, two recent studies found that the record rainfall from Hurricane Harvey—which cost roughly $125 billion—got a 15-percent boost thanks to climate change. The studies also found that climate change roughly tripled the odds of a storm of Harvey’s intensity.
The threats of climate change featured in FEMA strategic plans drafted under the Obama administration, as well as earlier ones. In a 2008 strategic plan drafted under the George W. Bush administration, then-FEMA director R. David Paulison said that future years “will likely present our nation with equally challenging events, including technological incidents, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or extreme weather events spawned by global warming.”
EPA MULLS SHAKE-UP TO ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH PROGRAM
February 26, 2018
According to the proposal, the EPA would consolidate its National Center for Environmental Research (NCER), a branch of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, with two other offices related to grant-making. The combined office would field Freedom of Information Requests, manage EPA records, and administer grants.
In a statement to Earther, EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman said that the move is intended to make the agency more efficient. She added that the management of research grants would continue and that none of NCER’s current staff would be fired.
When news of the reorganization first broke, some raised concernsthat NCER’s work would fall by the wayside. Currently, NCER oversees EPA’s STAR (Science to Achieve Results) program, which issues grants and fellowships to outside environmental researchers. STAR funding helps support the U.S.’s Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers, which examine pollution’s effects on children’s health.
In 2017, STAR earned acclaim from the National Academies—the U.S.’s preeminent scientific body—for its support of high-quality science, including work showing that infants could be exposed to arsenic via rice cereal. Yet from 2002 to 2016, STAR’s budget declined by more than 70 percent (adjusting for inflation) to $36 million, E&E Newsreports. In its FY2019 budget request, the Trump EPA called for STAR’s elimination.
In an interview with National Geographic, a senior EPA official said that the reorganized office would continue STAR if Congress funds it. The official added that new STAR grants would probably dovetail with the EPA’s priorities under administrator Scott Pruitt, which the agency laid out in its 2018-2022 strategic plan.
Pruitt’s “back-to-basics” plan calls for a focus on maintaining air quality, implementing recent chemical-safety reforms, funding infrastructure for drinking water, and accelerating the cleanup of Superfund sites. Missing from the document is any mention of climate change or carbon dioxide, points of emphasis in Obama-era EPA strategic plans.
TRUMP PROPOSES CUTS TO CLIMATE AND CLEAN-ENERGY PROGRAMS
February 12, 2018
At this point, the budget is merely an opening bid in negotiations with Congress; last year, lawmakers largely ignored similar proposed cuts. Nevertheless, the budget provides insight into the White House’s priorities.
For instance, the EPA budget suggests eliminating the environmental agency’s climate-change research program, which currently costs the agency $16 million per year. In addition, the EPA has proposed axing several voluntary emissions-reductions programs and STAR, which funds environmental research and graduate student fellowships.
Other parts of the budget trim environmental services, such as the EPA’s Report on the Environment, and cut the agency’s Human Health Risk Assessment program by nearly 40 percent.
As it did in 2017, the Trump administration has proposed axing several NASA Earth-science missions, including PACE and OCO-3. (Read more about the targeted missions.)
The budget also calls for shutting down the Earth-facing instruments aboard DSCOVR, which is already flying. These instruments include EPIC, which continually photographs Earth’s sunlit half to measure the planet’s energy budget.
The White House has proposed eliminating the U.S. State Department’s Global Climate Change Initiative, which in 2017 received $160 million in funding. The program primarily aims to help other countries better weather the impacts of climate change. Though most developing countries did little to contribute to ongoing climate change, developing countries will be more severely affected.
The Trump administration’s 2019 budget also advocates for a 55-percent cut in spending on the Department of Energy’s applied R&D programs. The cuts would shrink the agency’s $3.77-billion budget to slightly less than $1.7 billion. In its justification, the White House says that the move would refocus R&D efforts from late-stage development to early-stage research.
At the same time, the budget cuts investments in early-stage research by axing ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s $305-million advanced research program. The budget also calls for nearly a 40-percent cut to the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, even after accounting for the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA), which recently increased FY2019 spending levels.
At the same time, the budget calls for increases in spending on fossil fuels. Including the BBA, the Department of Energy’s budget calls for an extra $281 million on fossil-fuel R&D, $200 million of which would be spent on “clean coal.” (Can coal ever be clean?)
Unlike last year, the Trump administration is no longer proposing the destruction of the popular ENERGY STAR program, which certifies energy-efficient appliances. Instead, it wants to charge companies that seek the labeling, using those “user fees” to make the program financially self-sufficient.
REPORT: TRUMP MULLING MAJOR CUTS TO CLEAN ENERGY RESEARCH
January 31, 2018
Congress would likely oppose such steep cuts in any future budget negotiations, but the move further signals the Trump administration’s avowed support of fossil-fuel industries.
News of the proposed cuts comes the day after President Trump praised “beautiful clean coal” in his State of the Union address, and several days after Trump announced steep tariffs on imported solar panels. (Find out more about the myth of “clean coal.”)
According to Post reporters Chris Mooney and Steven Mufson,leaked budget documents reportedly show that the administration is seeking to cut funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by more than 70 percent, from an enacted 2017 budget of $2.04 billion to $575.5 million. The Post also reports that the budget suggests staffing cuts, from 680 staffers in 2017 to a proposed 450 in 2019.
“I will not comment on a budget that has not been released. However, I will suggest that anyone who questions this administration’s commitment to an all-of-the-above energy approach simply look at our record,” Department of Energy spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement. “Last year the Energy Department awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to solar and wind energy.
“Though it may not fit into the narrative of the environmental lobby and their pundits, the truth is that Secretary Perry believes that there is a role for all fuels—including renewables—in our energy mix.”
This would not be the first time that the Trump administration has attempted to slash this sort of funding. In its 2018 budget, the Trump administration sought cuts of more than two-thirds for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which Congress rejected.
EPA LOOSENS REGULATIONS ON TOXIC AIR POLLUTION
January 25, 2018
Industry lawyers and Senate Republicans have long argued that eliminating OIAI will actually provide a stronger incentive for businesses to reduce emissions, since they can now more easily lower emissions and avoid the regulations that major pollution sources must endure.
However, environmental activists and lawyers are concerned with the abrupt change, saying that it may actually increase exposure to hazardous air pollution—especially among vulnerable populations, who live near major industrial polluters more often.
“They’re really going to be killing people,” said Hip-Hop Caucus vice president Mustafa Ali, the former environmental justice head at EPA, in an interview with Earther. “You’re going to have all types of public health problems.”
To see how OIAI worked, imagine a business that emits 11 tons of a given hazardous air pollutant (HAP) per year. Under EPA regulations, facilities that emit more than 10 tons of one HAP, or 25 tons of HAPs in total, are reclassified from area sources to major sources.
By law, major sources must retool their processes to get their emissions down to the lowest levels set by peers within the industry. These benchmarks are called the Maximum Achievable Control Technology, or MACT, standards.
By hewing to MACT standards, let’s say the company’s HAP emissions go down from 11 tons per year to three tons. According to OIAI, the company would have to abide by MACT standards permanently, locking in eight tons of annual emissions reductions.
Under the new EPA policy, however, the company could do just enough to reduce emissions from 11 tons to nine. By dropping below the 10-ton threshold, the company goes from being a major source to being an area source—thereby jettisoning the MACT requirement.
While going from 11 tons of emissions to nine is technically a reduction, it’s actually more pollution relative to what the facility could have achieved by complying with MACT standards. This phenomenon, called “backsliding,” is what OIAI aimed to prevent.
Environmental groups are poised to sue the EPA to block the policy change.
“This is among the most dangerous actions that the Trump EPA has taken yet against public health,” said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a statement. “NRDC will fight this terrible decision to unleash toxic pollutants with every available tool.”
MOST OF NATIONAL PARKS ADVISORY BOARD RESIGNS IN PROTEST
January 15, 2018
First chartered by Congress in 1935, the civilian group is required to contain academic experts, experienced park managers, and at least one former elected official from an area adjacent to a national park.
The board advises the National Park System, the National Park Service, and the Secretary of the Interior on a wide range of matters, and it also helps to select national historic landmarks. Its members are unpaid.
“I wasn’t voted in, but I realize I represent people beyond myself,” says Carolyn Finney, a University of Kentucky geographer who had served on the board since 2010. “When you slam the door in the face of me and the board, you’re also slamming the door on a whole lot of other people.”
In a joint letter, Finney and other departing board members expressed frustration at Secretary Zinke’s refusal to meet with them.
“For the last year we have stood by waiting for the chance to meet… We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored, and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of its agenda,” wrote Tony Knowles, the board’s departing chair and a former Alaska governor, in a resignation letter co-signed by Finney and seven other board members.
“I wish the National Park System and Service well and will always be dedicated to their success,” Knowles’s letter continued. “However, from all of the events of this past year I have a profound concern that the mission of stewardship, protection, and advancement of our National Parks has been set aside.”
In May, the Washington Post reported that the Interior Department began a sweeping review of more than 200 advisory boards and other entities associated with the department. Around the same time, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt dismissed several members of the agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors.
REPORT: CLIMATE CHANGE WEB SITES ‘CENSORED’ UNDER TRUMP
January 10, 2018
The report, published by the nonprofit Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI), says that several government agencies—notably the EPA—have removed or reduced their web content about climate change.
Since Trump’s inauguration, the group has monitored thousands of government web pages for changes or deletions. In some instances, “climate change” is replaced with the vaguer words “sustainability” or “resiliency.” In others, some climate change webpages are taken down entirely.
For instance, the Bureau of Land Management’s web page on climate change was taken down between May and November 2017, the report states. The EPA’s “Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change” went offline sometime between February and April 2017.
“While we cannot determine the reasons for these changes from monitoring websites alone, our work reveals shifts in stated priorities and governance and an overall reduction in access to climate change information, particularly at the EPA,” the group says.
EDGI emphasizes that, so far, it hasn’t seen evidence of the removal or deletion of climate data sets, as some scientists and activists had feared.