The Worst Environmental Rollbacks of 2019

Illustration for article titled The Worst Environmental Rollbacks of 2019
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Year In ReviewYear In ReviewWe look back at the best, worst, and most significant moments of the year, and look forward to next year.

The Trump administration issued blow after blow to environmental protections this year. Sometimes, you couldn’t even finish reading about one when the next popped up. It was hard to whittle this list down because there were so many environmental rollbacks to choose from.

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Other presidents have revoked environmental policies, and it’s not like Trump’s predecessor was perfect. But this shit is on a different level. If he gets voted out next year, it’ll be hard to choose his worst legacy. But I think Trump’s environmental record will be it, in part because his administration has endangered the whole planet.

All of Trump’s rollbacks are even worse when considered in aggregate with all the other horrible things the Trump administration did this year. Medicaid work requirements? Awful, and even worse because the climate crisis is worsening public health and costing Americans billions in health bills. Declaring a national emergency to build the border wall? Sadistic and cruel, and as a fun bonus, could cause irreparable ecological damage. 

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The following list doesn’t even include all of the rollbacks of 2019. But some good stuff happened this year too, y’all! But if this makes you mad, remember that next year will bring a crucial election and United Nations climate conference. The climate crisis has taken lives we’ll never get back, but we can still make changes to prevent everything from getting much, much worse.

Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement moves forward

Trump announced he’d withdraw the US from the world’s main climate agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, back in June 2017. But he couldn’t actually start the process until November 4 of this year. When he did, he made the U.S. the only country in the world to reject the agreement.

The agreement is non-binding and far from sufficient to take on the climate crisis. It won’t be enough to stop sea level rise from destroying coasts and low-lying islands or to prevent an extinction crisis that wipes out thousands of species. In terms of actual emissions reductions needed to avert climate catastrophe, most countries are basically just thumbing their noses at the agreement. And yet, unfortunately, it’s the only international climate policy of its kind. So here’s the verdict: this rollback is very bad.

The U.S. can formally leave the agreement on [checks notes] one day after the 2020 election.

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Finalizing changes to the Endangered Species Act

Speaking of extinction, on August 12, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service announced that they completed their cruel changes to the Endangered Species Act. Those changes will make it much harder for the federal government to protect creatures that are dying off. Some particularly awful provisions they added limit the extent to which the impacts of climate change can be used as a basis to determine if a species should be considered “threatened.” And climate change threatens all kinds of species.

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Repealing the Clean Power Plan

The Trump administration had its sights on wiping out the Clean Power Plan since early 2017. But it put the final nail in the coffin in June despite widespread disapproval. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule replacing it, known as the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, is a joke—and a really unfunny one at that. The administration claims they want it to reduce emissions from power plants, but it wants to do so... without regulating them? Research shows their replacement rule could actually result in up to 11 million more tons of carbon dioxide emitted nationally by 2050 compared to no policy at all.

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It’s also honestly racist. The new rule states that it will “improve environmental justice communities’ health” (I truly hate the idea of anyone writing policy for the Trump administration disingenuously saying “environmental justice communities”), but studies show that it could result in increased emissions of the air pollutants sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in many states. And for the mostly low-income communities of color where fossil fuel infrastructure gets built, that can be deadly.

Killing the Waters of the U.S. Rule

The EPA wasn’t just messing with was power plant pollution rules. The agency as well as the Army Corps of Engineers also rolled back a major rule that defines which U.S. bodies of water are covered by the Clean Water Act known as the Waters of the U.S. (or it’s delightful-sounding acronym WOTUS) rule. That move meant over half of the nation’s wetlands and 18 percent of streams lost their federal protections from pollution. That provides a huge benefit to corporate polluters like Big Ag. Those streams and wetlands flow into the rivers and lakes that provide millions of people with drinking water, which is a big issue for the rest of us.

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Withdrawing Clean Air Act Emissions Standards

Do you like carbon dioxide? Then you’ll love methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent at trapping heat for its first 20 years in the atmosphere. Turns out the Trump administration loves it, too. In August, the EPA announced their plans to remove methane emissions standards from the Clean Air Act.

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Once this becomes law, the EPA will have no grounds under the act to force power plants and fossil fuel infrastructure to cut their methane emissions. Keep in mind, even freaking Shell wants tighter methane regulations. And it looks like states’ environmental control agencies don’t have the capacity to do that either, because most of them have seen budget cuts. Methane for all!

Revoking California’s Auto Emissions Authority

Cars are the biggest source of carbon emissions in the U.S. California is the biggest economy in the U.S. Letting the state set stricter auto standards would seem like a surefire to help the country as a whole get a handle on carbon pollution. So naturally Trump decided to revoke the state’s ability to do just that.

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Before doing that, Trump tried to roll back Obama-era federal emissions standards, but even some major automakers didn’t want that. In response to the California rollback, the Golden State and a coalition of other states sued the EPA. Trump asked a federal judge to throw out the case. We’ll see what happens in 2020, but for now, the rollback stands.

Honorable mention: ...light bulbs?

Inefficient incandescent light bulbs—which the EPA notes are also more expensive—were going to be phased out of use in the U.S. by 2020. And yet the Trump administration rolled back efficiency standards for lighting that will keep the bulbs around because... they make the president look orange? I don’t even know what to say about this one.

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Sometimes I think they’re just doing this to mess with us, you know? Like, I almost want to laugh. But then I remember the stakes.

Staff writer, Earther

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Let’s play, Trump campaign sloganeering or presidenting dick move.

Paris: there will always be Paris. We can roll back in or even not roll out. He may slow-walk rollout. Sloganeering.

Endangered species act: has been fucked with and unfucked with since it was signed in 1973. A per usual dick move.

Clean Power Plan: NRDC worked on CPP from soup to nuts. The former EPA head Gina McCarthy now works at NRDC (she heads it up, actually). Interview her...hint hint. Sloganeering.

WOTUS: The EPA was formed in 1970 with a focus on water and air. By the mid/late 1970s it was like, oh fuck, we forgot land (and groundwater). The corps of engineers were put on WOTUS chiefly for the fact that navigable waters are highly dependent upon river feeds, i.e. groundwater, runoff, etc. So we’re talking water quality and quantity. Sloganeering, with dick move unintended consequences for rural areas.

Methane emissions: this might just be for oil and gas leases on federal lands - presuming we’re talking Obama’s Methane Rule. It’s not like shitloads of fugitive methane is not released outside of federal lands. Sloganeering.

CA Auto: a total dick move.

Efficiency (i.e. lightbulbs): conservatives never liked conservation. Sloganeering and a total dick move just to be an asshole.