State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

While No One Was Watching: Changing Environmental Regulations Under the Trump Administration

A coal train sits on a track next to a facility in Donora, PA
President Trump promised during his election campaign that he would increase U.S. coal production. Donora, PA. Photo: Dale Willman

I know this risks sounding like what my kids call a ‘grandpa story,’ but context is important, particularly when talking about environmental regulation. Most Americans alive today were born after April 20, 1970, so have no personal frame of reference for what the country’s environment looked like before the first Earth Day, but it was not good.

In the late 1960s, much of the nation was plagued by rampant air and water pollution. Litter was so severe that Lady Bird Johnson (little known fact – her real name was Claudia) began a beautification campaign that included picking up debris along the nation’s highways. Trash was seemingly dumped just about everywhere. And yes, rivers even caught fire from the chemical waste poured into our waterways.

The first Earth Day in 1970 galvanized what had been a growing environmental movement that gained legitimacy with the release of the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson in 1962. Millions of people protested for change that day, leading to the 1970s becoming known as the environmental decade. Starting with the signing into law of the National Environmental Policy Act on January 1, 1970, many of the laws key to how we now regulate the environment were passed in just ten years.

Today, some of the regulations that sprang from those laws and others are under attack. According to a recent accounting by the New York Times, The Trump Administration has attempted to reverse almost 100 environmental rules in less than four years — regulations that were aimed at reducing auto emissions, lowering mercury emissions from power plants and more.

In a recent webinar, three environmental law experts — Michael Burger of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Ann Carlson of the UCLA Law School and James McElfish of the Environmental Law Institute — discussed the current regulatory landscape. The webinar was hosted by the Media Resilience Project, which is part of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

While the Obama presidency was not known for being overly strong on environmental issues, toward the end of his administration, Obama did score a number of successes. He protected more federal land and water than any of his predecessors. He also declared a permanent drilling ban on much of the U.S. territory in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, and signed the Paris Agreement dealing with climate change.

A natural gas pipeline rises out of the ground in Saratoga Springs, NY
Trump Administration rollbacks of protections led to a temporary boom in fracking in some areas of the U.S. Photo: Dale Willman

It was apparent though that the country’s environmental focus would shift if Donald became president. Michael Burger says Trump was quite clear during the campaign about what he would do. “Trump ran on a platform of climate denial and with a number of pledges to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement and to counteract the Clean Power Plan and to roll back climate regulations across the board, as well as a more generally anti-environmental set of commitments.”

Ann Carlson says that, once in office, the Trump administration quickly attempted to alter the regulatory landscape. “The Trump administration came out with guns blazing to roll back a lot of rules.” But she says the changes were immediately challenged. “They also got slapped down by a lot by courts for failing to follow proper procedures, failing to follow things like basic notice and comment.”

Since those early failures, though, many changes have been made. James McElfish places those changes in a couple of broad categories. “The two buckets are regulatory reform — revision kinds of orders — and then orders that are directed at specific natural resource or regulatory outcomes.” And, he says, there are a lot of them. But that’s not what is most important. “What I think is interesting at this point is it’s not the orders that matter so much as what’s happening in the agencies that are carrying these out and how far along they are in cementing into regulation those policy priorities that were set up largely in the first six months of the Trump administration.

It’s not uncommon for an administration to change priorities, for the environment and many other issues. When President Reagan took office, the changes he made to environmental policy initially were considered extreme. President Clinton offered a different direction, and some of his changes were then reversed when President Bush was elected. But what is different here, says Burger, in addition to the scale of the changes, are the circumstances in which some of the changes are being made. “What we’re really seeing is an attempt to, in many respects, disregard congressional intent and disregard the purpose, the meaning and the commands of legislation that was enacted by Congress in order to provide public benefits to the American people in the form of environmental protections.”

Join Burger, Carlson and McElfish for the rest of the conversation by watching the video below. And be sure to check below for our journalist resources and story ideas.

One of the priorities of the Earth Institute’s new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability is improving the interface between journalists, scientific expertise and vulnerable communities. This is the latest webinar in a series I’m developing on covering factors that either boost or impede community and ecological resilience in the face of the landscape of hazards in this era of rapid change. More videos can be found on the Resilience Media Project page.



New York Times lists almost 100 reversals of environmental rules

Sabin Center for Climate Change Law’s Silencing Science tracker

The Sabin Center’s Climate Deregulation Tracker

Tracking climate and energy regulatory rollbacks by Drilled News, a good source for energy and climate news

Brookings Institution’s deregulation tracker

Harvard’s Environmental and Energy Law program’s Regulatory Rollback Tracker

Harvard’s EPA Mission Tracker

New York University’s School of Law environmental enforcement tacker

Center for Western Priority’s public lands policy tracker

Other Resources

Environmental Law Institute Analysis of attempts by the Council on Environmental Quality’s attempts to alter one of the pillars of modern environmental regulation, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

Environmental Law Institute’s “Environmental Protection in the Trump Era,” updated in 2018, and “Regulatory Reform in the Trump Era” from 2017

Sabin Center’s “US Climate Change Litigation in the Age of Trump: Year Two” (2019)

The Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2017 workshop on the changing environmental regulatory landscape with the incoming President Trump, including this resource toolbox

UCLA Law’s Emmett Institute blog

Articles of Interest

Citing the Pandemic, Trump Administration Stops Enforcing Environmental Laws – Government Executive

Trump’s Industry First, Science Last Agenda is Costing Lives” – State of the Planet blog, Earth Institute, Columbia University

Cities implore courts to limit pollution

Policy changes bring about fracking boom – NY Times

Challenges to the Clean Water Rule – Earthjustice

Regional effects of regulatory changes – the Adirondacks of New York


In the 1970s the EPA ran a program called Documerica. They hired photographers to take images of the state of the environment in the U.S. These photos are available free of charge for use. Reporters can find images from their communities, compare them to how the same sites look today, and track what changes in environmental regulations might mean to those sites in the future.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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