The Environmental Impacts of Donald J. Trump’s Reign: Impacts on Water

This article will be focusing on the changes and decisions made by the Trump administration throughout his 4-year reign, focusing on the subject of water. This includes partnerships, plans, rules, standards and targets relating to water in the United States.

The Trump Administration & Water

Over the past 4 years that Donald Trump has been in office, his administration has managed to dismantle numerous major climate policies, and rolled back a series of rules governing clean air, water, wildlife and toxic chemicals in the United States. This includes the loosening of oversight in polluting industries, eroding protections for endangered wildlife, and rolling back a number of Obama-era efforts to address the ever-increasing threat of climate change. According to the New York Times, as of November 10, 2020, more than 80 environmental rules and regulations have been officially reversed, revoked, or rolled back by the Trump administration, and another 20 rollbacks are still in progress.

Figure 1 – NYT Rule Reversals Count

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, the Trump administration began to accelerate its push for deregulation – easing requirements on power plant waste leakage into waterways, weakening efficiency standards for household appliances (e.g. dishwashers), scaling back oversight on mining safety, and providing approval for seismic drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge. However, the administration’s changes to environmental protection in the United States have been occurring since Donald Trump first took office in 2017.

According to the New York Times, the majority of the rollbacks identified have been carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA has been responsible for relaxing restrictions on CO2 emissions from power plants and vehicles, removed protections from over 50% of the country’s wetlands and withdrew the legal justifications for restricting mercury emissions from power plants. At the same time, the Interior Department has opened up more previously protected lands for oil and gas leasing by limiting wildlife protections and weakening the environmental requirements for projects. In conjunction, the changes made by the Trump administration’s various offices have caused serious damage to the environmental legislation in America.

The Trump administration has impacted America’s waterways in numerous ways since Donald Trump first took office. In this article I will be discussing a number of changes made to US legislation, guidelines and protocol over the past 4 years – and the ones that are still in progress.

Flood Standards on Sea-Level Rise

On August 15, 2017, Trump signed an executive order revoking the previous federal flood risk standards that incorporated rising sea levels predicted by climate scientists. The new executive order claims to improve upon federal infrastructure decisions by expediting and streamlining the environmental review process. This order took the additional step of revoking Executive Order 13690 signed by President Obama in 2015.

Figure 2 – Sea Level Rise

Executive Order 13690 required federally funded projects meet the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, to reduce the risk of future flood damage. Specifically, the order required floodplains be based on the “best available, actionable hydrologic and hydraulic data methods that integrate current and future changes in flooding based on climate science.” The Obama-era order aimed to make infrastructure projects like roads and bridges to be designed to survive rising sea levels and other related consequences due to climate change. The executive order was meant to protect taxpayer dollars spent on projects in areas prone to flooding and to improve climate resilience across the country. Supporters of the Obama flood rules say they would protect lives by positioning new roads and buildings on safer ground, and protect financial investments by ensuring infrastructure projects last as long as they can. However, some business representatives objected, stating the new rules would increase the costs associated with new developments. While the Obama administration’s order covered only public infrastructure projects, but revoking it could impact private developments as well. For instance, if the government were to build a road in a high-risk flooding zone, residential development might follow suit.

“We’re going to get infrastructure built quickly, inexpensively, relatively speaking, and the permitting process will go very, very quickly.”

DONALD TRUMP (2017)

As soon as Trump announced the rollback of the policy, it was denounced by numerous environmental groups. Sierra Club Executive Director stated, “This is climate science denial at its most dangerous, as Trump is putting vulnerable communities, federal employees, and families at risk by throwing out any guarantee that our infrastructure will be safe.”

In 2016, representatives from the NRDC and the Reinsurance Association of America penned an op-ed in Politico, urging Trump to maintain the Obama-era standards, stating climate resilience is crucial across the country. “While many Americans may think flooding is only a problem for coastal regions prone to hurricanes and tropical storms, it is far more widespread than that and can devastate any state or region across the country. In just the past 5 years, all 50 states have experienced flood damage.”

Figure 3 – The Climate & The Military Issue

Unfortunately this is not the first time Trump has reversed an Obama-era order, pushing the American government to avoid factoring climate change into decisions. NPR reported in 2017 that President Trump told the federal government that it didn’t need to treat climate change as a national security threat – despite the increasing flooding hazard that rising sea levels pose to military bases (see Figure 3). The risks had apparently been highlighted in a report the previous summer in 2016 by the Union of Concerned Scientists; it stated that 128 American military installations were at risk from sea level rise.

Offshore Drilling Safety Rules

Figure 4 – Offshore Drilling

On April 28, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order ordering the review of Obama-era bans on offshore oil and gas drilling in parts of the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The specific rules under review included a 5-year oil leasing roadmap that excluded Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and a December 2016 attempt to permanently ban drilling on wide sections of Arctic and Atlantic waters. In 2017 NPR reported that the order also halts all the designations or expansions upon the National Marine Sanctuaries, unless the move includes an Interior Department estimate of the area’s “energy or mineral resource potential.”

On October 24, 2018, the Trump administration approved the first offshore oil wells for the Arctic. After years of debate between conservationists and the oil industry about the costs and benefits, the federally controlled water of the US Arctic was officially cleared to see their first oil and gas production wells. When announcing the approval, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stated, “Responsibly developing our resources, in Alaska especially, will allow us to use our energy diplomatically to aid our allies and check our adversaries.” However, many environmentalists remain concerned that Alaska’s unforgiving climate and endangered wildlife make these projects too risky. The Ocean Legal Director for the Center for Biological Diversity commented on the subject, stating, “Opening the Arctic to offshore oil drilling is a disaster waiting to happen. This project sets us down a dangerous path of destroying the Arctic. An oil spill in the Arctic would be impossible to clean up and the region is already stressed by climate change.”

The company involved in the project, Hilcorp, states that the project, titled the Liberty Project, includes the creation of a gravel island in 19 feet of water, about 5.6 miles of Alaska’s north shore. The island would have a footprint covering about 24 acres of the seafloor and an area above the surface of approximately 9 acres. The site is located a few miles east of the massive Prudhoe Bay oilfield. As well, Hilcorp’s aim is to extract 60,0000-70,000 barrels per day, from up to 16 separate wells on the island, for a total collection of 80 million to 130 million barrels over the span of 15 to 20 years, and will be travelling via an underwater pipeline.

While regulators have pointed out the safety features in approving the plan, including a promise to only drill into oil-bearing rocks when the Arctic is frozen, and including restrictions on ship traffic – environmentalists insist that any cleanup efforts in the remote north would be exceedingly difficult, and that noice and traffic to the island will likely disturb wildlife including whales and seals.

On May 2, 2019, the Trump administration announced that they would be rolling back safety measures that regulated offshore drilling operations. The previous rules for offshore drilling safety were implemented in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in which 11 people died, and over 200 million gallons of oil was released into the sea when a BP oil well exploded. Oil from the disaster impacted the nearby coasts and deep seas for years to come.

After the explosion, the Obama administration tightened safety rules surrounding offshore drilling operations. This included the requirement of more tests on blowout preventers and other aspects of the drilling machinery and processes, requiring safety checks from independent investigators. The Trump administration’s rollbacks will reduce these safety measures. These rollbacks were welcomed by leaders in the oil and gas industries, but has been repeatedly criticized by environmental groups.

Federal Oil & Gas Leasing

On October 23, 2017, the Interior Department proposed the auctioning off of oil and gas leases for 77 million acres of federal waters within the Gulf of Mexico. The Interior department released a statement saying that it would be auctioning off the oil and gas leases for all available unleased areas on the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf, in the waters off the Texas costs, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. This announcement came only days after a particularly disastrous spill from an oil pipeline off the coast of Louisiana, which released about 672,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – the largest since the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010.

As of November 17, 2020, oil and gas companies can pick which parts of the Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge they’re interested in drilling. It is a post-election attempt by the Trump administration to auction off development rights before President-elect Biden can take office this upcoming January. The official call for nominations launches a 30-day comment period, allowing the Bureau of Land Management to move forward with a lease sale, which it must announce 30 days in advance. While the timing is not clear, this raises questions about the possibility of a lease sale occurring just days before Biden’s inauguration.

After 4 decades of protections, a Republican-led Congress in 2017 approved legislation opening up part of the refuge to oil development, calling for 2 lease sales in the coastal section of the refuge within 7 years – with the first to be held in 2021. However, environmental groups are criticizing the administration’s choice to push forward with the sale now, only a few months away from the inauguration of the new president, stating the process is being rushed to open up sacred and environmentally sensitive lands to oil drilling.

The Arctic refuge’s coastal plain is one of the nation’s most iconic and sacred landscapes, with about 1.6 million acres of land, and home to a wide range of wildlife; but it also is an area believed to hold billions of barrels of untapped oil. Environmental law firm, Trustees for Alaska, among several other groups, and a coalition of 15 states, have filed lawsuits this year aimed at derailing the drilling plans for the refuge (which are still in progress). Senior staff member of the law firm, Brook Brisson stated, ” this timeline indicates that they’re trying to cram this through in a way that would cut out consideration for public concern.”

While President-elect Biden says he has plans to protect the Arctic refuge permanently, banning new oil and gas permitting on all public lands and waters. However, if drilling leases are finalized before Biden takes office, they could be extremely difficult to revoke. Although, even if that isn’t the case, Biden will still be facing the federal law mandating a lease sale by the end of 2021. Former commissioner with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Andy Mack, stated that that incoming administration could still impose restrictions, making it more difficult for permits to be approved. “What they would try to do is make it so difficult and so onerous to get the array of permits that the companies just say, ‘well, we’re not going to spend 10 years just trying to get a simple permit, we’re going to put our money and investment elsewhere.'”

Waters of the United States Rule

On December 11, 2018, the EPA and the Army Corps published a proposal to undo a major Obama-era environmental regulation – the Clean Water Rule. This rule defined the Waters of the United States (WOTUS); the rivers, streams and lakes that fall under federal jurisdiction and form the foundation of an integral piece of water protection legislation, the Clean Water Act. The new rule became effective in all states (except Colorado) on June 22, 2020.

The Clean Water Rule was first published in 2015 as a means to clarify which streams and wetlands fall under federal water protections; a previous vagueness that caused much legal frustration. However, the rule faced serious blowback from agricultural and industry groups across the country. Many of the criticisms it faced were exaggerated – like how it doesn’t cover puddles – but the rule was generally cited by conservatives as a perfect example of EPA overreach under the Obama administration.

In 2017, President Trump signed an executive order directing the EPA to begin the long process of repealing the Clean Water Rule, with no clear replacement. In early 2018 the EPA suspended the Rule, and in December of 2018 the Agency revealed its replacement, one that they claimed would smooth over the problems making the 2015 regulation so contentious. According to two lawyers from Thompson Coburn LLP, this new rule “streamlines the definition of WOTUS and provides clearer guidance for property owners, developers and others as to the reach of federal jurisdiction. Significantly, the definition of WOTUS in the 2020 rule signals a scaling back of the jurisdiction of the EPA and Army Corps over some water features.”

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated in a press release, “For the first time, we are clearly defining the difference between federally protected waterways and state protected waterways. Our simpler and clearer definition would help landowners understand whether a project on their property will require a federal permit or not, without spending thousands of dollars on engineering and legal professionals.” However, environmental groups said the new definition would cut the number of waterways the federal government is required to regulate, leaving many of them vulnerable to pollution. For example, it excludes waterways that only flow seasonally, or from certain weather events. According to the EPA, an estimated 18% of stream and 51% of wetlands would not receive federal protections under the new proposal.

Conclusion

In this article I have discussed a number of the impacts that the Trump administration has had on America’s environmental legislation and protections, however, I would like to note that these are only a few of the changes made during Donald Trumps presidency. For more information on this subject, check out some of the links and videos available on the Additional Resources page.

Keep tuned for the next post in the series coming soon on the Trump administration’s impacts on the environmental progress that had been made in America prior to his inauguration in January 2017.

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