In late August, U.S. President Donald Trump rolled back one of the last major environmental regulations made under the Obama administration, allowing oil and gas companies to not have to detect and repair methane leaks — a potent contributor to climate change.
The rollback was the latest in a series of dismantling former President Barack Obama’s efforts to cut climate-changing emissions from the oil, gas and coal industries.
“It’s very classic,” said John Smol, a professor in the biology department at Queen’s University and Canada Research Chair of Environmental Change. “It’s short term thinking and making it easier to pollute. Look at the C02 emissions, they are rising and we are in a downwards spiral.”
Over the three-and-a-half years of Trump’s presidency, he has lifted restrictions on countless Obama-era environmental regulations and has instead been speeding up the construction of pipelines, weakening wildlife protections and opening a large amount of U.S. wilderness to oil and gas drilling.
Trump called the regulations unnecessary and burdensome on the fossil fuel industry and “job-killers.”
In 2017, almost a month after taking the presidency, Trump said his administration was working “hard to roll back the regulatory burden so that coal miners, factory workers, small business owners … can grow their businesses and thrive.”
Matto Mildenberger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California in Santa Barbara, said the argument that these regulations kill jobs, is simply not true.
“Today in the U.S., the number of people employed in the fossil fuel industry is smaller than those in the renewal energy industry, like solar and wind. There’s not too many people in the coal industry,” he said. “His administration is just propping up failing industries, like coal rather than attempting to build a new clean American economy.”
According to the New York Times and data from Harvard Law School and Columbia Law School, the Trump administration has rolled back nearly 70 environmental rules and regulations. More than 30 additional rollbacks are still in progress.
A majority of the rollbacks have been done by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is headed by Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist. The EPA was so efficient in scaling back environmental laws, that an internal watchdog group said the agency “exceeded” its deregulation goals in 2017 and 2018.
Here are a few of the major rollbacks.
Pulled out of Paris climate agreement
Last November, the Trump administration announced it was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Accord, a landmark 2015 global agreement to fight climate change.
The main goal of the agreement is to keep global temperature “well below” two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
In the same month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the agreement was an “unfair economic burden” to the U.S. economy, and that he has submitted formal notice to the United Nations, beginning a process that will not become official for a year.
The U.S. will officially leave the Paris climate agreement on Nov. 4, 2020, one day after the American election. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said he would rejoin the pact if elected.
Rollback of Obama-era water, wetland protections
In January 2020, Trump’s administration finalized plans to strip away environmental protections for millions of miles of waterways and wetlands across the U.S.
Although the ease in restrictions was welcomed by developers and many farmers, environmental activists said the move meant waterways and wetlands are more vulnerable to destruction by oil spills, fertilizer runoff and other pollutants.
Axed Obama’s Clean-Power Plan
In June 2019, the EPA axed Obama’s signature climate change policy, the Clean Power Plan. This plan required states to meet targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and aimed to cut power sector emissions 32 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The Trump administration’s replacement called the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE), said states can set their own carbon emissions standards for coal plants. ACE would reduce energy sector emissions by 11 million tons by 2030, or between 0.7 percent and 1.5 percent.
Weakened land, animal protections
Trump has downsized two major protected lands in the U.S.
In 2017, he announced plans to slash more than two million acres of protected lands at Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument (created by former President Bill Clinton) and Bears Ears National Monument (created by Obama), both in Utah.
This marked the biggest elimination of public lands protection in America’s history. The changes allowed mining and oil and gas development in the areas.
Last year, the Trump administration announced that it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, making it harder to protect wildlife from the multiple threats posed by climate change.
Relaxed restrictions on methane
In August 2020, the EPA announced its plan to roll back regulations on methane emissions for the oil and gas industry. The government’s plan would rescind many of the requirements on oil and gas sites to monitor for methane leaks and plug them.
This was an Obama-era rule that required oil and gas companies to monitor and fix points where methane, the second-largest driver of climate change, leaked from infrastructure.
But the Trump administration said the regulation was “flawed” and “unnecessarily burdensome on the private sector.”
The change in rules would result in the release of an additional five million metric tons of preventable methane pollution each year, according to an assessment by the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund.
Oil and gas companies, such as Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, opposed Trump’s move, and instead urged the government to maintain strong methane emission regulations.
In March 2019, former chairman and president of BP America said it was “essential” that the EPA regulates methane emissions.
What about the next 4 years?
If Trump is re-elected in November, the EPA has already said it will move to weaken more environmental regulations on industries.
Mildenberger said a second term for the Trump administration would be far more destructive to the environment than the first as the EPA is finally up and running under new leadership and in an “efficient” groove of deregulating.
“Trump has accommodated the fossil fuel industry more than any other president, and the amount of rollback in regulations has been very harmful,” he said. “There’s also the issue that we’re running out of time … if we don’t take action in the next two to four years, then there could be irreversible damages that can’t be solved.”
Although Trump has made the fight against climate change “more difficult,” Smol said that does not mean all is lost.
“When you have the president of the U.S. pretending climate change is not a serious issue, that can be dangerous, domestically and internationally,” he said.
Smol said it’s important that the fight against climate change has strong leadership. And if the U.S. isn’t willing to take the reins, then other countries and even individual states can.
Although the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Accord, there are still 197 countries signed on. And nations such as Norway, Canada, Gambia, Morocco, India and Japan are leading the way in investing in renewable energy, he said.
Norway has committed to reducing its emissions 40 per cent by 2030 and aims to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050. Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also announced his government’s plan to get Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
There has been a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy in the United States — but on a more local level.
California has been one of the strongest leaders in the fight against climate change.
In 2018, the state passed the 100 Percent Clean Energy Act with the goal of being carbon-free for electricity retail sales by 2045. And by 2030, California has committed to putting five million zero-emission vehicles on the roads.
“Trump has been seen as the ‘anti-climate’ face around the world,” Mildenberger said. “And if anything, there is a silver lining, it helped crystalize this very vibrant set of climate advocates throughout the world, who will work even harder even if he wins reelection.”