Trump administration moves forward with looser air rules as respiratory disease grips U.S.

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A woman with a face mask looks over an empty Queensboro Bridge in New York City. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

The Trump administration is moving forward with easing restrictions on air pollution even as the novel coronavirus — and the deadly respiratory disease it causes — grips the country.

Many of the moves were a long time coming. But the timing has incensed President Trump critics, who accuse the administration of taking steps that will reduce air quality at a time when scientists are beginning to consider whether pollution increases the risk of coronavirus infection and intensifies the symptoms of covid-19.

“Air pollution reduces our body’s ability to fight infection,” Moms Clean Air Force co-founder Dominique Browning said. “Pollution from power plants and trucks and cars is also one of the causes of the underlying heart and lung problems that make people more vulnerable to covid-19.”

Over the past few days alone, the Trump administration has taken action on:

  • Cars: The Environmental Protection Agency is set to finalize on Tuesday one of the biggest rollbacks on environmental regulations in Trump’s first term — a loosening of Obama-era mileage standards for cars, pickup trucks and SUVs.
  • As Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report, the government’s own analysis “shows that the new standards would lead to between 440 and 990 premature deaths each year” due to the increase in air pollution from tailpipes.
  • Oil and gas drilling: The Trump administration has continued its push to drill for oil and gas amid the outbreak. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management sold off the right to drill on a total of about 87,000 acres in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.
  • Not only do the lease sales lock in more oil- and gas-related pollution, officials went forward with the auction even after oil prices plummeted by more than 60 percent since the start of the year because of a decline in oil demand and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia — both of which have been triggered by the pandemic.
  • Environmental enforcement: The EPA issued a memo on Thursday telling petrochemical plants, power companies and other major industries “they could determine on their own if they can report their operations’ air and water pollution levels during the virus outbreak.”
  • Cynthia Giles, a former EPA enforcement official under President Barack Obama, told Eilperin and Dennis it will be nearly impossible to tell whether operations pose a public health threat without any data on file.

That decision came after the American Petroleum Institute, a major oil lobby group, called for an easing on enforcement during the pandemic. But easing pollution rules now may end up being a problem in certain pockets of the country. While the agency said the enforcement policy is “temporary and will be lifted as soon as normal operations can resume,” public health experts warn that virus hot spots are also historically regions with high air pollution levels, as well as higher rates of respiratory illness, according to E&E News.

The Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group founded by former EPA enforcement attorneys, put it this way in a letter: “Excusing the potential release of excess toxic air pollutants and other pollution that exacerbates asthma, breathing difficulty, and cardiovascular problems in the midst of a pandemic that can cause respiratory failure is irresponsible.”

That’s because air pollution has been linked to a generally greater risk of respiratory infection. While there are no large scale studies yet specifically connecting bad air with acute covid-19 symptoms, and not every not public health expert is convinced a link will be established, there are a few smaller studies that hint at a connection, as Chris Mooney reported earlier this month.

“Given what we know now, it is very likely that people who are exposed to more air pollution and who are smoking tobacco products are going to fare worse if infected with covid than those who are breathing cleaner air, and who don’t smoke,” Aaron Bernstein, the interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The Post.