The federal government has a huge impact on environmental quality and human health for North Carolina residents. All laws and regulations that are passed at the federal level must be followed at the state level. States can choose to be more proactive than the federal government, but not less. In North Carolina, the “Harrison Amendment”(General Statute 150B-19.3, passed in 2014) prevents our state agencies from implementing any standards that are more protective than minimal federal regulations, or even creating standards if federal rules do not yet exist. This a has affected our state’s ability to respond to coal ash waste, Gen X, and other pollutants.

Unfortunately, under President Trump’s administration, environmental, human health, and natural resource protections continue to shrink. Adjusted for real dollars, the EPA’s budget is at its lowest since 1979, and its workforce is at its lowest level in 30 years. A review of the EPA’s own data from 2018 show that inspections, enforcement actions, civil and criminal cases, and fines are at their lowest level in decades, dropping by about half across all these measures. Combined pollution and hazardous waste reduction data show 2017 and 2018 to be the lowest years on record for this goal as well.

A few specific anti-environment actions taken by the Trump administration this past year include:

Reductions in Vehicle Fuel Economy Standards: Transportation counts for roughly one-third of US fuel consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Advances in auto technology have steadily improved efficiency and reduced emissions, while also improving safety and power.

Source: Ensia

This year, Trump limited future progress on these standards, freezing them at 2020 levels. California and 19 other states (which together make up about one-third of the US auto market) then began legal proceedings to stick to the more efficient standards for their states. In addition, the auto industry as a whole pretty much disagreed with Trump here, preferring consistent standards and regulatory certainty (and lower emissions, by the way). In fact, auto makers will likely continue to advance fuel economy and efficiency, despite Trump’s regulatory rollbacks.

Dramatic increases in land-based and offshore oil drilling and exploration: The Trump administration continues to vigorously pursue all land and offshore options for exploration, drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of oil and natural gas. Permits and leases on public land are up dramatically. The first US Arctic water drilling sites have been permitted, along with leases for exploration along more than 90 percent of the east, west and gulf coasts. Pipeline construction for this oil has also been greenlighted. Across the board, protections for safety, wildlife, surface and groundwater, and greenhouse gas emission reductions have been reduced, so as not to “interfere” with drilling and pipeline operations.

However–the federal court system has blocked several drilling operations on both federal land and Arctic and Atlantic oceans. In these cases (brought by environmental groups), judges stated that the Trump administration did not “adequately analyze wildlife and climate impacts in their plans.” The Trump administration is appealing the decision, and will continue in the main to increase fossil fuel drilling. However, these court decisions are a classic example of the checks and balances in our three-part government. They demonstrates again how very important it is that our court system be politically impartial.

Efforts to prop up the coal industry: It has not been enough for Trump to stop all federal progress on GHG emission reductions. When it comes to the coal industry, he has rolled back specific air and water pollution regulations, and even attempted to publicly subsidize failing coal utilities. Specifically, Trump’s policies have and will continue to increase emissions of lead, mercury, methane, sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides and other pollutants proven to be hazardous to human health and the environment.  

Despite Trump’s efforts, though, coal-fired utilities are closing all over the country. Natural gas and renewable energy cost less to produce and ship, and their plants are easier to “turn off and on.”  In this case, better technology and market forces are “trumping” poor federal policy.

Increased logging on public land: Trump issued an executive order that bumps forest harvesting on federal land by 31 percent. Pitched as a step to “reduce wildfires,” most of the increased harvesting would actually take place among healthy forests in the southeast, not the drought-plagued forests of the southwest.

Confirmation of Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, as EPA Administrator. During his confirmation hearing, Wheeler endorsed broad environmental deregulation.  

Endangered Species Act rollbacks: Last summer, the Trump administration proposed changes to this Act that would lessen protections for the 1,600 species currently listed. Species protection is closely linked to habitat protection. Trump’s goal here, similar to his efforts to reduce protections for national land, is to make it easier for private entities to develop, use or extract resources from public lands.

Changes to the regulatory process: Among Trump’s actions are the big, bold ones that are easy to spot and call out (Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge!). More difficult to communicate are the ways his administration damages public health by undercutting the regulatory process.

“Regulatory lobbying,” is the effort by special interests to eliminate or reduce rules governing business operations across the board. An example in the environmental area is the Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule. This (proposed) rule would limit the use of scientific studies in which all data are not publicly available. Generally, private medical records that detail human health effects are scrubbed of personal data. But if scientists cannot use this information (because it is not “public”), they cannot analyze health effects of various chemicals. If the government cannot analyze whether a chemical is harmful, then they cannot regulate it. See how that works?

There is no doubt the Trump administration is causing serious harm to public health and our environment. One can easily connect these policies to special interests that support his administration: the fossil fuel industry, non-renewable energy producers, chemical companies, gambling interests, and a broad range of corporate groups seeking regulatory cutbacks. It’s also become a common tactic for these groups to book stays and events at Trump properties, something that should be a clear conflict of interest.

A few bright spots from this past year include:

Keystone XL Pipeline still on hold: Blocked by Obama in 2015, revived by Trump in 2017, the fate of this pipeline–which would transport fracked natural gas from Alberta, Canada into Nebraska, remains unclear. Concerns center around the pipeline’s path through Native American land, environmental damage, and the increased GHG emissions from natural gas combustion.

Juliana v. United States: Originally filed in 2015, the “Youth Climate Change Lawsuit,” charges the US government with knowingly worsening the trajectory and impacts of climate change, thus violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to “life, liberty and property.”  The government has tried to have the lawsuit dismissed multiple times. Citizen awareness and participation has increased, though, each time the court has affirmed the lawsuit’s legal viability. Recently 15 “friend of the court” briefs representing numerous public interest groups were submitted to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals urging that the case proceed to trial.

Save Our Seas Act of 2018: Part of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, this bill authorizes $10 million per year for five years to research and reduce ocean waste. It is a rare instance of both bipartisanship and pollution prevention action by the Feds.

Nationwide increase in solar development: Despite tariffs on imported solar panels, solar utility development is growing healthily in the US. Total renewable energy development is set to increase by double digits over the next five years, and projections from the US Department of Energy show electricity generated by renewables overtaking coal generation by 2022.

What you can do:

  • Keep up with your federal representatives and issues on GovTrack.Us. You can easily search by issue or elected representative.
  • Check out your federal representative’s environmental voting record and rating via The League of Conservation Voters.  Spoiler alert! Senators Tillis and Burr have very low ratings (7 percent and 8 percent, respectively).
  • Let your elected representatives know (via email, Twitter, or your favorite stationery), that environmental and energy issues are important factors in your voting decisions.