Conservation and Biodiversity

5 US environmental rollbacks pushed during the pandemic

The United States did what?

This week, the U.S. legalized brutal practices for hunting wildlife in Alaska, as outlined in new rules released by the National Park Service. Practices, which were previously banned, include killing bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens, luring hibernating bears with junk foods and using dogs to hunt black bears.

Unfortunately, this rule is just the latest in a cascade of environmental rollbacks by the U.S. At this point, the country has weakened so many environmental regulations it’s impossible to keep up. 

We’ll limit this post to highlighting just five of the most recent rollbacks. We hope this list shows just how much is at stake this November.

NEPA review waived 

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that changes key parts of the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The order waives environmental review processes in construction. Put another way, the changes could allow companies and agencies to just build, without giving the environment a passing thought.

The new order is supposed to speed up the economy after the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, but many are worried the rule could threaten human health. 

For example, air pollution from construction sites and tailpipe emissions can cause chronic health problems in neighboring towns, problems that historically disproportionately affect vulnerable populations and communities of color.

Clean Air Act rewritten 

The same day as Trump’s executive order for NEPA, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed changes to how the Clean Air Act is written. The EPA introduced a cost-benefit analysis, which would allow the agency to view pollution largely through an economic lens, without considering other factors, like public health. 

Like the changes to NEPA, this rule would weaken the very regulations that can protect already vulnerable communities from air pollution. This is especially concerning given the coronavirus pandemic: Recent research has linked air pollution to an increase in death rate of COVID-19

Mercury rule weakened

Speaking of cost-benefit analysis, that’s the justification the administration used in April when it weakened a rule that forced coal plants to cut mercury emissions. While the rule would technically keep in place the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, it would also make these standards more vulnerable to lawsuits. Long term, the change could also prevent similar regulations from being passed.

Mercury is especially harmful for pregnant women and has been linked to neurological issues for infants and children, as well as immune and cardiovascular issues in adults. Just as with the changes to NEPA and the Clean Air Act, this rule would most likely disproportionately affect already vulnerable communities. 

Clean Water Act tool removed

This month, the EPA announced a rule that would restrict states’ abilities to block infrastructure projects. More specifically, the rule would revise the certification process listed under section 401 of the Clean Water Act. 

Traditionally, section 401 has given local governments power to review new projects to ensure they’re safe for the environment — in other words, a state veto to federal projects. In the past, states have used section 401 to block fossil fuel projects, as New York did last month when it killed a controversial interstate pipeline.

Environmentalists worry that in addition to encouraging more pipelines, the new rule would make it more likely projects — be it mines, dams or pipelines — could harm the environment, as well as local drinking water. 

Clean car standards rolled back

In late March, the U.S. finalized a rule to roll back fuel-efficiency standards for cars, a standard that many considered one of the government’s most ambitious measures to tackle climate change. The new rule requires car manufacturers to make their new fleets 1.5% more fuel-efficient each year — much lower than the 5% each year established by the previous administration. 

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Last month, 23 states and several cities sued the government over the rule change, citing — you guessed it — public health. 

Meanwhile, Reuters reported this week that the world’s 14 largest car manufacturers are set to miss global emissions targets, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. This recent rollback certainly doesn’t help. 

The U.S. is marching in the wrong direction, despite having the opportunity to invest in a green recovery after the coronavirus pandemic. 

But every citizen has the power to reverse these trends and invest in a more sustainable future. To hold politicians accountable, use your voice this November and vote for the planet — Vote Earth