Four years ago, President Donald Trump vowed to cut back at least 70 percent of environmental regulations, saying there were far too many.
It’s unlikely Trump met that target, but not for lack of effort.
His aggressive deregulation runs the gamut, reducing or slashing protections for water, air, climate, food and wildlife.
Industry has warmly welcomed Trump loosening rules it considered onerous. Conservationists have decried the rollbacks, with many labeling Trump the worst environmental president in history.
Many of Trump’s rule changes were in the months leading up to the election, and several have been issued afterward, ensuring President-elect Joe Biden will have an immense task in undoing the policies if he chooses.
Some regulations will take time to change or reverse because they will require a full review process with public comment.
Several environmental advocates each picked a Trump rule they most wanted to see overturned, though they all described that repeal as a first step.
“President Trump’s environmental policies did a great deal of environmental harm in a short amount of time,” said Emily Knobbe, who specializes in Environmental Protection Agency policies at the Center for Biological Diversity.
All of Trump’s environmental rules should be repealed to rebuild the pre-Trump foundation and help the Biden administration make real progress, Knobbe said.
The ‘dirty water rule’
The navigable water rule that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued earlier this year removed federal regulation for polluted streams and storm runoff flowing into major waterways such as the Rio Grande.
The rule more narrowly limits waters that fall under federal oversight. They include waterways that flow year-round or seasonally and connect to another body of water.
It excludes as “ephemeral” storm-generated streams and tributaries that don’t flow continuously to another water body.
Rachel Conn, projects director with Taos-based Amigos Bravos, said she most wants this “dirty water rule” repealed because it disproportionately affects New Mexico.
“It’s devastating,” Conn said. “We are the most negatively impacted by the rule because we have so many waters that don’t flow year round.”
Almost 90 percent of New Mexico’s waters could be deemed ephemeral, Conn said, citing state estimates.
Some waterways don’t flow in intervals regular enough to be seasonal as defined by the rule, she said, adding the Gila and Santa Fe rivers have perennial dry stretches that appear to disqualify them from federal protections.
New Mexico depends on federal agencies for oversight. It is one of just three states with no authority from the EPA to regulate polluted discharges into waters. That would include contaminated storm runoff from Los Alamos flowing into the Rio Grande, a prime source of drinking water, Conn said.
Amigos Bravos and other conservation groups have sued the EPA to get the rule vacated. The governor and other state leaders oppose the rule as well.
Conn hopes the Biden administration restores the broader protections.
“This rule was advocated by polluters,” Conn said. “It creates massive uncertainty.”
One of New Mexico’s main industries is oil and natural gas production, which can emit huge amounts of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere.
The Obama administration enacted rules aimed at reducing and better capturing these emissions to improve air quality and combat climate change, and Trump officials have since rolled them back, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
“A return to those [previous rules] will be an important job for the Biden administration to take up,” said Jon Goldstein, the Defense Fund's director of regulatory and legislative affairs.
Curbing methane and carbon dioxide pollution is the best way to “bend the curve” on the climate crisis in our lifetimes, Goldstein said, explaining why regulating these emissions tops his priority list.
Scientists estimate a quarter of current global warming is linked to methane, Goldstein said. Citing state estimates, he said 53 percent of New Mexico’s methane is released through oil and gas operations.
In particular, the methane waste prevention rule enacted under President Barack Obama in 2016 must be restored and strengthened, Goldstein said.
The rule required oil and gas companies to inspect their sites more often for leaks, cut flaring in half and replace old equipment that emits excessive methane. Obama officials estimated it would reduce methane waste by 35 percent on public lands and save enough of the gas to supply 740,000 households a year.
Trump’s former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke removed most of the requirements. A federal court ruled against those revisions in July, and the Bureau of Land Management has appealed the court’s decision.
New Mexico has stepped up its oversight of methane pollution, but strong federal regulation also is needed, Goldstein said.
The state lacks jurisdiction on tribal lands and can do nothing about methane drifting from Texas and Colorado.
“Air pollution doesn’t stop at the state line,” Goldstein said.
Migratory bird protections
BP’s massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 killed more than a million birds along with untold marine wildlife.
The bird deaths contributed greatly to $4.5 billion in U.S. Justice Department fines and the $65 billion in total cleanup costs and penalties that BP racked up in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
BP was found guilty of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was designed to hold companies liable if birds on the protected list die, even accidentally, because of activities such as oil drilling or installation of power lines.
The Trump administration has sought to revise rules to hold companies liable only if they intentionally harm the birds — which would’ve let BP off the hook because that wasn’t the purpose of the drilling, said Judy Calman, policy director for Audubon New Mexico.
One of Audubon’s top priorities is to restore the migratory bird law’s original protections, Calman said.
It is one the country’s first environmental laws, and the fines levied against violators pump a lot of money into restoration and cleanup of disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill, Calman said.
Various operations kill an estimated 450 million to 1 billion birds annually, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other studies. In New Mexico, the bird protections are vital because of the hazards posed by oil and gas operations, transmission lines and wind turbines, Calman said.
Audubon joined other conservation groups and eight states in filing a lawsuit that challenged the administration’s policy. A federal judge in August ruled against the White House’s interpretation, saying it didn’t align with the century-old law.
The administration has filed an intent to appeal the ruling. It also began working to finalize a rule to eliminate liability for the incidental killing of birds that would be harder to fight in court, Calman said.
“So one thing we’d definitely like to see right away is the Biden administration stopping the bad rule-making process,” Calman said. “And stopping the federal government’s appeal of the August District Court decision.”
Cutting back pesticides
Trump’s EPA has loosened rules on pesticides, including chemicals that research shows can pose risks to consumers, farmworkers and bees.
The adverse impacts are potentially high in New Mexico, where agriculture is a $6 billion a year industry that’s woven deep in the state’s history and economy.
The EPA approved a total of 100 pesticides in 2017 and 2018, including some chemicals the European Union has banned, according to federal data.
“There have been countless pesticides approved and reapproved that are associated with serious health impacts and environmental harm,” said Knobbe, the EPA policy specialist.
The center wants the Biden administration to take prompt action to better protect people and the environment from the chemicals, Knobbe said.
They include dicamba, paraquat, atrazine, neonics and organophosphates, Knobbe said.
Paraquat is among the chemicals for which U.S. regulations are far behind other countries, she said.
One of the most toxic pesticides applied to crops is chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxin that in large enough doses can pose health risks to field workers and sprayers and can harm children’s neurological development.
Under the Obama administration, the EPA decided in 2015 to phase out chlorpyrifos. But in 2017, former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, a Trump appointee, reversed that decision.
Two years ago, the EPA issued an emergency approval to allow more widespread use of neonics that are highly toxic to bees.
“We are hoping to see some real tightening of restrictions on some of these pesticides,” Knobbe said.
One of Trump’s recent deregulatory moves that perhaps has stirred the most outcry is his reducing the reviews that are done under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Trump has justified paring NEPA to speed up permitting on infrastructure projects such as pipelines, highways and power plants that he said were held up for years by those who used the law to oppose them.
An environmental attorney said restoring NEPA to its previous scope is No. 1 on her wish list.
“Because the [new] NEPA regulations are applicable to every federal department and agency, the amount of damage and mischief that those regulations can and will do if they are faithfully executed … is really incalculable,” said Susan Jane Brown, wildlands program director for the Western Environmental Law Center.
Brown said she would like Biden to immediately put Trump’s rules on hold and then work to repeal them.
The rule absolves federal agencies from having to consider the cumulative effects that a project can have on the environment and, in turn, how it might worsen climate change, Brown said.
In New Mexico, oil and gas companies won’t have to show the impacts that new fossil fuel production could have on the climate as well as on the water, air and Indigenous communities, Brown said.
Brown said she has won court cases because a federal agency approved a project under the previous rules without getting a full analysis of the impacts.
“We want those regulations back,” Brown said. “We want good regulations that require the government to tell us how their actions will impact the climate and communities.”