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Ann Mesnikoff

Federal Fights to Protect the Environment: 2020 in Review

It’s been another very busy year for ELPC, fighting back against an administration that continues to put public health, clean air and water and the climate in the proverbial backseat.

As 2020 comes to a close, we are we are counting down the days of the Trump administration and looking forward to January 20th, 2021 when President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are sworn in.

The Trump administration is racing the clock to finish rules and have them published in the Federal Register (a key procedural step in the process). They are trying to put as many hurdles in the way of the new administration as possible, but ELPC is there to speak out every step of the way.

Here’s a look at 10 rollbacks and updates we worked on in 2020, as we look forward to working with a new administration to protect our environment and implement climate solutions.

1. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Part 1:

Last year we reported that the Trump administration was chipping away at bedrock environmental law and noted the big attack was yet to come. That attack came on January 10th, with the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) proposal to undermine NEPA reviews across the federal government. NEPA is designed to ensure careful and informed decision-making for major projects, by ensuring that significant environmental impacts are not overlooked or underestimated, and alternative methods for addressing an identified need are considered. Instead, Trump’s CEQ turned NEPA on its head, crippling review and limiting public participation. ELPC testified at the one hearing and coordinated 58 Great Lakes organizations to submit comments opposing these changes. ELPC and the Alliance for the Great Lakes took one last opportunity to urge the administration to halt this damaging rollback, but CEQ issued its final guidance in August.

2. NEPA Part 2:

As part of the NEPA overhaul, federal agencies had a year to respond with complementary policies. Instead, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) opted to rush its process to incorporate all that is wrong with the CEQ guidance and then some. DOT issued its proposal in November with a 30-day comment period that ended on December 23rd.  ELPC and partners from across the Great Lakes spoke out against this damaging and wasteful proposal, and we hope that DOT can’t turn the final rule around before the January 20th.

3. Undermining Science:

Under the Trump Administration, the EPA has been undermining its own ability to protect public health by limiting the science it will consider in setting pollution standards. Under the guise of “transparency,” public health studies long considered in helping EPA set limits for air and water pollution could be out. They are politicizing science by letting the EPA administrator pick and choose which studies it will consider. EPA’s first proposal in 2019 was so deeply flawed it had to issue a supplemental proposal in March of this year. This supplemental proposal was just as flawed, and we and our Great Lakes partners made clear that EPA’s legal hook for undermining science didn’t hold. The administration has yet to issue this final rule, but we expect it any day now (even if they get it out the door on January 20th and 11:59 am).

4. Putting the Polluter Thumb on the Scale:

In June, EPA issued another proposal rule purportedly intended to achieve greater “transparency” in setting pollution standards under the Clean Air Act. As my colleague Ann Jaworski noted, “this rule’s only purpose is to lock in a flawed analysis process for future Clean Air Act rulemakings by limiting EPA’s ability to consider important health studies and the full benefits, including premature death averted, that occur when a standard targeted at one pollutant also reduces other pollutants.” This rule isn’t about “transparency” in how costs and benefits are considered it’s a distortion of how to value benefits to favor industry’s costs over the cleaning up the our we all breathe.

5. And 6! Protecting Clean Air:

Too many Midwesterners and people across the country still live in areas where the air is simply not healthy to breathe. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is supposed to update standards for major pollutants like ozone (smog) and fine particle pollution to ensure they are based on the latest science and public health data every 5 years. This year the Trump administration rushed its review of standards for ozone and PM 2.5, cutting corners on process and science. ELPC addressed the need to strengthen the standard for both pollutants in public hearings and in meetings with OMB. Not surprisingly, EPA rushed a final PM 2.5 standard out the door and we expect a final ozone standard any day now. The Trump EPA seems singularly focused on protecting polluters over public health even as they head out the door.

With the new administration, we will begin the work of undoing four years of damage while also engaging in what we do best – advocating for the strong safeguards we need to protect our clean air and water and the climate.

7. Invasive Species and Ballast Water:

Aquatic invasive species pose an enormous threat to the Great Lakes. Movement of species within the Great Lakes remains a concern and threat to the overall health of the Lakes and the economies they support. Congress directed EPA to update rules for ballast water (the water ships uptake and discharge for balance). Rather than doing a thorough job that met the direction from Congress EPA issued a proposal with many flaws, but most significantly did not take steps to help prevent Lakers, the ships that only move around the Great Lakes, from moving invasive species around. And, in a rush to get this rule done, EPA offered only 30 days to comment and no hearings. In October, ELPC and Great Lakes partners asked for more time which EPA did not grant. We joined our partners’ detailed comments here.  This is one of the rules EPA could still try is rushing to get done before January 20th.

8. Undercutting Clean Water Act protections:

In 2020, the Trump EPA issued two rules intended to make it harder to protect clean water. In April, EPA issued its “Navigable Waters Protection Rule” that left many streams and wetlands unprotected from pollution or development with little science to back up what is or is not protected. Protecting the Great Lakes requires protecting all of the waters that feed into them – by undercutting the Clean Water Rule, EPA has made that much harder. Then in June EPA issued a rule that hamstrings the ability of states to protect their own waters leaving states and tribes with less ability to effectively ensure their water quality is protected from federally permitted projects under the Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification.

9. Clean (or not so clean) Cars update:

Undermining the 2012 Clean Car standards, one of the hallmark climate actions of the Obama administration, was a top priority for the Trump EPA and DOT. Changes in administration can mean changes in policy, but good rules take time to issue and so do bad ones. At the end of last year we reported that the administration had to break its rollback of the clean car standards into two rules: one to take away the authority of California to maintain its stronger standards for vehicle pollution (which ELPC and partners are challenging) and a second rule, issued in August, to replace requirements that car makers consistently make vehicles more efficient and emit less carbon pollution through 2025 with next to nothing standards. We are challenging this rule too but also hope to see early and quick action on clean cars with the new administration.

10. Not giving the public a fair say:

The Trump team has been rushing the rollbacks all year and not even the COVID public health crisis could slow them down, though it has been harder for the public to engage in the rulemaking process. Public hearings are a critical way for people to testify face-to-face with the staff at the agencies doing the work, and advance rules that will best for the American people. Even before public health shut downs began, EPA began holding phone-in only public hearings. In January I testified against weakening standards for toxic coal-ash at one of these phone-in events – it felt like leaving a message on EPA’s answering machine that no one would listen to. Throughout the year, ELPC has urged EPA to do better. We get that in-person hearings can’t happen until it is safe to gather in large groups again, but our message to EPA was to use available technologies (Zoom or other) to make virtual hearings as close as possible to the real thing. As the Biden-Harris administration come in, we will urge that they too put technology to work as they work to repair the damage of the rollbacks noted above and others from the last four years and more importantly issue proactive proposals.

It has been a rough four years when it comes to fighting the wave of rollbacks and the fight will continue right up to the moment President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are sworn in. And then we will begin the work of undoing the damage while also engaging in what we do best – advocating for the strong safeguards we need to protect our clean air and water and the climate.


Ann Mesnikoff,

Federal Legislative Director

Ann Mesnikoff is the federal legislative director at ELPC, working in Washington, D.C., with the Midwest Congressional Delegation and national coalitions to advance supportive clean energy, clean water and clean air, and transportation reform policies.

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