Op-Ed: Last month in environmental policy

Monday, March 13, 2017 - 2:48pm

President Donald Trump’s first month in office came to an end recently, and the world of environmental policy is still reeling from the dramatic and counterproductive changes Trump’s administration has made. The futures of critical Obama-era legislation and agencies, which were designed to protect ecosystems and foster sustainable industry practices amid the realities of climate change, now appear threatened by the potential of executive orders aimed at dismantling them.   

One of the most troubling changes has been Scott Pruitt’s confirmation as head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Feb. 17. Pruitt has been a longtime adversary of the EPA, having sued the agency 14 times for its efforts to regulate mercury, smog and carbon emissions from power plants. But his history of opposition to environmental regulation extends beyond the EPA: Pruitt has also developed long-standing ties with the fossil fuel industry. During his time as the attorney general of Oklahoma, for example, he dismantled a specialized environmental protection unit and established a “federalism unit” to counter what he referred to as “unwarranted regulation and systemic overreach (by federal agencies).” 

This aggressive approach secured him the approval of many Republicans and the oil and gas industries. Pruitt has made numerous claims that he is determined to eliminate the Clean Power Plan, a critical climate policy created under the Obama administration that aims to reduce carbon emissions in order to combat climate change. However, Pruitt’s continuous skepticism of climate change data, evident in his efforts to defend these interest groups, has highlighted his willingness to compromise public and environmental health in order to further support the fossil fuel industry, leaving even more room for further dismantlement of key climate change regulations.

To make matters worse, Trump has proposed substantial cuts to the EPA’s budget, resulting in the elimination of dozens of core programs and reducing the agency’s staff by 20 percent in the first year alone. Additionally, the cuts would shrink grants to states — including those for air and water programs — by 30 percent.

For example, restoration efforts in the Great Lakes are expected to experience a jolting stop, as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative budget is facing a potential 97 percent cut. Jeffrey Reutter, a special adviser of the Sea Grant College Program at Ohio State University, voiced the fears of many environmentalists on how “we’ve seen (Lake Erie) go from the poster child for pollution problems to the best example in the world of ecosystem recovery. Now it’s headed back again.” 

Other restoration efforts in the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and the Gulf of Mexico are also at risk of facing major cuts. Moreover, Trump signed a repeal of the transparency rule, a regulation that required energy companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments. The repeal of this rule reduces the accountability of the fossil fuel industry. In response to this decision, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D–Ohio) said, “this kind of transparency is essential to combating waste, fraud, corruption and mismanagement.”

The president continued to act on his skepticism of climate change by signing a bill on Feb. 16 that ended Obama’s coal-mining regulation, which was implemented in order to protect waterways from coal mining waste and maintain public health. With coal being the largest source of carbon emissions and a major contributor to global warming, the reversal of this regulation could result in immense, immediate and long-term water, ecosystem and climate damage.

Moreover, despite months of protests and public outcry, on Jan. 24, Trump signed executive orders that authorized the continuation of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline. Today, the construction of DAPL is nearly complete. Not only does the pipeline encroach on sacred indigenous land of the Sioux Tribe, it also threatens the ecological quality of the land itself. The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes have now filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the hopes of ending the pipeline’s drilling. The lawsuit details how, in the event of an oil spill or any damage to the lake, the water supply and quality surrounding the land could be compromised, thus posing an enormous threat to the food supply.

Last month alone was a trying time for advocates of environmental stewardship, and we now await updates regarding the future of the Clean Power Plan, the EPA and climate regulation. However, campaigns and organizations founded to support scientific research and data, including the March for Science, are now even stronger. The continuous growth of these movements will require united and steadfast support in the face of such opposition in order to continue fighting for the implementation of strong and effective environmental regulations.

EnviroDems is the environmental justice committee within the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats.