Sean Donahue, a lawyer whose focus area includes environmental litigation, discussed the President Donald Trump's administration’s efforts to deregulate key environmental policies at Hutchins Hall on Tuesday. The talk was organized for The Environmental Law and Policy Program Lecture Series put on by the University of Michigan Law School.
Donahue’s firm, Donahue, Goldberg & Weaver, LLP, based in Washington D.C., focuses on Constitutional, environmental and civil rights litigation.
Environmental policy deregulation under the Trump administration has been a controversial and prevalent initiative, Donahue said. Trump promised to decrease environmental regulations and promote coal and industrial energy during his campaign. Donahue compared the Trump administration’s efforts to cut regulations to the French Revolution, saying it was similar to the beginning of a new regime.
“Any new administration especially, when there is a change in party, there’s a sense of ‘We’re going to fix things, we’re going to reverse direction on some things that have been really bad,’” Donahue said. “But with the Trump administration, it was a really extraordinary sense of declaring Year Zero.”
Donahue outlined three phases in which the Trump administration worked to deregulate environmental policies. The first phase consisted of a series of executive orders Trump issued loosening regulations, including the “two-for-one” executive order, which required federal agencies to eliminate two regulations for each new regulation they sought to implement.
“(Trump issued) the two-for-one executive order to eliminate two regulations for every one new one,” Donahue said. “And also a requirement that new regulations that impose compliance costs on the private sector have to be offset by the repeal of regulations that will reduce compliance costs by at least an equal amount. And in that calculation, regulatory benefits like health benefits or other advantages that might be provided by regulation are not counted, which is a big deal.”
Donahue said while the Trump administration was enthusiastic about deregulation policies, they widely ignored the typical transition process in which civil servants within environmental agencies outline key functions of the organization and explain deregulation procedures.
“You have this very high level of ambition coupled with a disdain or failure to engage with the sort of machinery of changing the direction of the federal regulatory apparatus,” Donahue said.
Trump’s executive orders demanded the review and reconsideration of some of former President Barack Obama’s major regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan and clean water standards known as the “Waters of United States” rule.
Phase two of Trump’s deregulation, Donahue said, was suspending compliance dates of existing environmental regulations. This suspension prevents key industries from having to follow the regulations Trump plans to eventually repeal.
“The general idea is, ‘We want to change the regulation, maybe repeal them outright, maybe make them less onerous for industries or otherwise change them, and while we’re doing that we don’t want industry to have to worry about complying with them,’” Donahue said.
Donahue noted a suspension on regulating glider vehicles — heavy trucks sold as new despite having old engines that do not comply with the Clean Air Act.
“The proposed rule got a lot of adverse comments, and so what they did was they decided they wanted more time to think about it and they issued a letter to the industry called a ‘No Action Assurance,’ which basically said, ‘We’re not going to enforce the emission limits on your vehicles,’” Donahue said.
LSA sophomore Dylan Berger, president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans and a columnist for The Daily, did not attend Donahue’s talk, but said in an email he agreed with the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal existing regulations. Still, Berger hopes to see a more comprehensive review of environmental initiatives by the administration in the future.
“As Americans, nothing is more important than protecting our beautiful environment,” Berger said in the email. “As such, we must tackle climate change and other threats to our environment head on. However, many of the regulations meant to protect the environment have fallen short of the mark. They do little to protect the environment while unnecessarily harming our economy. I applaud the efforts of the Trump administration to repeal these ineffective and harmful regulations. Going forward, however, I’d like to see the Trump administration outline a clear plan to protect both our environment and economy.”
On the campaign trail, Trump floated the possibility of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency and has reiterated the idea since taking office. First year Law student Rebecca Maas attended the event and expressed her surprise over lack of support for the EPA.
“One thing that perhaps should not have surprised me is that the EPA is facing so many struggles with this new administration, when before it seemed that there was relatively high bipartisan support for an EPA, and now that bipartisan support seems to be in danger,” Maas said.
Donahue said the third phase of the Trump administration’s deregulation of environmental policy is the actual act of repealing regulations. Donahue mentioned the act to repeal the Clean Power Plan and its replacement with “deficient” alternatives. Under Trump, the EPA proposed replacing the Clean Power Plan with the Affordable Clean Energy proposal, which would allow states to have more autonomy in regulating greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants.
Donahue said this change was one of the most aggressive efforts to repeal regulations.
“The transition between Obama and Trump is pretty much the level of the sort of violence of the change, is unprecedented,” Donahue said. “The harder Reagan transition generated a lot of the law we see cited … but I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t nearly as far reaching and Reagan’s regulatory people were a lot more conventional in their approach.”
Maas, a first generation college student whose family is from Germany, said the lack of political consensus surrounding environmental protection was unfamiliar to her.
“My family came from Germany, so I’m the first person from my family to graduate from an American college,” Maas said. “For us, the whole idea that people are arguing about keeping the environment clean is surprising because it is a very high priority in Germany. So I just hope in the future that both parties can agree on ways to keep our environment clean.”
Maas said she believed environmental protection should not be a partisan issue.
“I think the environment is important because regardless of which party you are from, you only get one world,” Maas said. “I hope that the current administration takes environmental issues more seriously moving forward, though based on what we heard about in this talk, I’m not sure if that will happen.”