Do Regulatory Rollbacks Help or Hurt?

Blog #74, CaliforniaGeo, 5-15-2020

The Climate Forward department of the New York Times has been covering many subjects that pertain to sustainability, renewable resources, climate change, greenhouse gases, and the like.  They began a tally immediately after the Trump Inauguration in early 2017.  Since then, the rhetoric against environmentalism preceded the massive rollbacks of previous regulations emanating from previous statutes.   

Never Before?

It might be fair to compare this pointed policy shift to the earliest days of the George W. Bush Administration when Vice President Cheney met privately with fossil fuel representatives.  In private meetings with no records, Cheney and those industrialists discussed and mapped a strategy to accelerate fracking and extend tax subsidies that had been in place for decades.

When asked, Bush repeatedly said that the most efficient way to regulate the fossil industry was to follow their policy and regulatory suggestions.  This was essentially self-regulation by self-interested corporations.

Cheney and industry partners’ wishes were diminished somewhat during the Obama years, but under Trump, they are back and are expanding in supercharged fashion.  There seems to be no particular control over the fossil fuel industry.  They get government tax help as if they were a start-up, and they export lots of their products overseas for maximizing profit.  Extraction from public lands, combined with scant regulation and ongoing financial help from all of us, while polluting all the way, doesn’t seem like a sound policy to me.   

Agency Overhaul-

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is a particular focal point in changing policies to minimize protection of humans, animals, land, and water since Trump arrived.  Scott Pruitt (prior to his appointment and narrow Senate approval) sued the EPA as Oklahoma’s Attorney General 14 times, fighting against regulations.  Prior to that, he was a state legislator for the region around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and has been a well-funded darling of the fossil fuel industry.  He lasted just under 17 months before his number two at the agency (a former coal lobbyist) succeeded him.


Leadership Abandoned-

The U.S. is the only one of 197 nations of the world that is leaving the Paris Climate Accords, and most if not all members of the Trump Administration (minus the scientists) are climate deniers as Pruitt and Wheeler are.  All the arguments of denial have been de-bunked, but this  Administration continues its regulatory dismantling course.  One of the cruel ironies of the situation is that the U.S. has been the greatest consumer of fossil fuels over the last 40 years and therefore has contributed the most greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.  Scientists have demonstrated the steep climb of CO2 over that period and though deniers reject it, bubbles within Greenland ice cores show us that the atmosphere now has more carbon dioxide than at any point in the last 800,000 years.  This is far earlier than the Industrial Age, when humans expanded fossil fuel use many times compared to prior history.

Missed Opportunity-

The reversal of U.S. environmental policy is a lost opportunity in multiple ways.  It’s a moral failure (since we have been the leading  contributor to climate change).  It represents a reduction in the potential of green industry; including the export of products and services we might lead the world with.  And, it is a mis-step where we continue propping up business models that are contributing to climate-related demise and explosive societal costs.  Instead, we should be incentivizing all things green that can save the planet.

The current difference between policy choices and incentives in this case lies outside the usual cultural, political, and public relations spheres that award dominance and long life to the victors.  It is the fact that climate change is real, its influence (and costs) are growing, and science promises us that without greater control over greenhouse gases, the atmosphere’s temperature will approach a kind of free run, and nothing can stop continuing increases.  


Even the U.S. Military sees climate change as a reason to fortify their coastal bases, worldwide.  Health experts bemoan the EPA’s current push not to regulate particulates smaller than PM2.5.  They stay in the lungs and foster a variety of respiratory and cardiac problems.  The health care costs of various air pollutants from combustion are enormous boosters of additional expenses and premature deaths.

Turning a blind eye toward previous regulations over air, water, and toxic waste has put the EPA into a role of a short-term Grim Reaper, and a longer-term presider over the coming climate disaster.  Along the way to both we’ll see an unending growth in the social costs of prioritizing the operations and profits of extractive industries over the health and financial well-being of U.S. citizens.  Private profits (with continued federal subsidies) will remain industry’s goal without responsibility to minimize damage or to pay for it after-the-fact.  Legal action by others will be impossible if government regulations are permissive toward polluting extractors.

While a phalanx of federal lawyers write the new regulations for the EPA, another group of outside lawyers is opposing them at every turn.  Multiple lawsuits have argued to maintain  the 98 rules (featured above).  The latest is attempting to preserve the Clean Power Plan.

While the American Lung Association is the lead petitioner, the “et al.” in this lawsuit consists of multiple utilities, regulators, and auto manufacturers who have been gearing up to comply with the pre-Trump regulations.

They’ve sunk tens of millions into emissions controls, renewable electricity projects, and cleaner vehicle technologies.  If the Trump-led EPA wins, the competitors to these compliant adopters will maintain a financial and regulatory advantage, rendering the petitioners’ investment as less effective.  In a similar case of compliance to California’s (permitted) tighter auto emissions standards, Trump has sued and threatened to withhold Interstate Highway funds if California doesn’t buckle.  Four major automakers are sticking with the tighter standards regardless—likely because a majority of consumers want higher mileage and less emissions.

A Double-barreled Hit-

Climate defense and human health will not be protected by a federal policy to gut existing standards.  Allowing more pollution, toxic waste, and damage to humans, other animals, and plants will cost society far more than industry’s savings.  A migration back to cheap and dirty electrons will reduce the momentum of renewable energy by cutting its savings potential and propping-up fossil businesses—all while the federal government continues to subsidize them.

This situation is as if the government realized the true cost of 450,000 smoking related deaths each year but continued to subsidize tobacco farmers (which it does).  A cancellation of ALL subsidies in the energy sector would boost the competitive position of renewables and improve the health of all.  Our federal government is doing something that right-wing partisans have whined about for years—but now they are picking fossil business interests as winners and sustainable renewables and public health as losers.

—Bill Martin