Trump team hurries to finish environmental rollbacks before Biden takes over

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Trump administration’s effort to lock in dozens of environmental rule changes before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden is picking up speed ahead of the Christmas holiday. 

Environmental activists, meanwhile, who have spent much of the past four years arguing these moves to ease regulatory burdens on business endanger public health and exacerbate climate change, are urging the incoming Biden team to quickly reverse the rollbacks.

Biden has promised to do just that once he takes office. But with these lame-duck final actions, that task gets a whole lot harder.

The administration is checking off its to-do list by finalizing about a half-dozen rule changes since Election Day.

One of the biggest, just finalized this week, is a set of restrictions making it more difficult to enact public health protections.

Going forward, the Environmental Protection Agency must consider all of the economic costs of curbing an air contaminant, while ignoring any indirect benefit that comes from cutting the pollution.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the move was “all about transparency,” but it will have the effect of tying the Biden administration’s hands in combating air pollution — at least, that is, until it repeals the new requirements on cost-benefit analyses.

Another rule, finalized this week by the Energy Department, will allow manufacturers of home appliances in some circumstances to design their own energy-efficiency tests for their products. Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, is concerned that will lead to cheating consumers out of savings on their electricity bills.

“The new rule is an invitation for abuse,” said deLaski. “The incoming Biden administration should move swiftly to undo this rule.”

And although it’s not technically not a rollback, the agency also locked into place existing standards on soot pollution when it had the opportunity to fortify them this week – a move public health experts were urging in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Higher levels of fine particulate matter have been associated with more deaths from covid-19.

In total over the past four years, the Trump administration has finished rolling back at least 134 environmental safeguards, according to a Washington Post tracker.

There are at least another 49 environmental rollbacks still in the works across the federal bureaucracy.

Among them are forthcoming restrictions on the type of scientific studies the EPA can use in crafting public health rules and the easing of a long-standing ban by the Interior Department on the incidental killing of migratory birds.

Even in its waning days, the Trump administration is proposing new rollbacks it has little time to complete. Last month, for example, the Interior Department announced it wants to water down safety rules for drilling offshore in the Arctic.

If Democrats win both of the Senate runoffs elections in Georgia, they will have the chance to strike down recently completed Trump-era rules with a law called the Congressional Review Act. Short of that, the Biden administration will likely have to go through the whole months-long rulemaking process again to reverse the regulations.

Some things will be hard to wind back. The Bureau of Land Management is working quickly to auction off the rights in drilling in portions of the nearly 1.6 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine habitat for polar bear and other animals. It is difficult for Biden’s deputies stop a company from drilling once a lease is sold.

With Inauguration Day looming, officials in Alaska took the unusual step of setting Jan. 6 as the date for the lease sale before the completion of the official “call for nominations,” a step that allows companies to identify tracts on which they want to bid. Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, thinks the rush makes the lease sale more vulnerable to legal challenges.

“This whole boondoggle can and should be tossed in the trash by the courts or the next administration,” he said.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.