From the Pandemic to the Protests, Trump Is Using National Crises as Cover for Climate Rollbacks

The White House is also a putting longtime "sagebrush rebel" in charge of the agency that manages drilling on public lands.

Alaska Pipeline

If there’s one thing we’ve learned since we began, three months ago, to track the Trump administration’s climate rollbacks and favors to fossil fuel under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the fossil fuel industry and its allies never waste a good opportunity to advance their interests with as little public scrutiny as possible.

So in the days and weeks since the first protesters hit the Minneapolis streets on May 26 over the killing of George Floyd, we have not been surprised to see Trump’s team use the national uprising for Black lives and against police brutality for cover to advance a new flurry of incentives for fossil fuel development.

But what is remarkable is how sweeping these moves have been. Over just the first two weeks of June, the Trump administration knocked the foundations out from under U.S. environmental protections by targeting three key laws that the fossil fuel sector has long fought to weaken: the Clean Air, Clean Water, and National Environmental Policy acts.

Let’s take a look at what happened in the first two weeks of June. As always, you can find more details on these moves, and more than 100 other climate-and-energy-related rollbacks and fossil fuel incentives pushed forward since the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March on our Climate & COVID-19 Policy Tracker.

  • June 1: EPA Finalizes Pipeline-Friendly Changes to the Clean Water Act. The EPA’s rule change drastically reduces the power of states to block pipelines and other energy projects over water quality concerns.
  • June 4: No More Environmental Impact Reviews. Citing the “economic emergency” created by COVID-19, Trump signed an executive order to do something he’s been trying to do since January: gut the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposed projects before approving them. Trump’s June 4 order suspends these environmental reviews as well as public comment periods (?!) for highways, pipelines, oil and gas projects, and other big infrastructure efforts.
  • June 4: EPA Proposes Narrowing the Parameters of the Clean Air Act. These rule changes will make it harder for environmentalists to hold polluters accountable. The proposed revision is vague enough to both trigger decisions that prioritize economic above environmental health impacts, and enable regulators to question scientific data around the benefits of reducing air pollution, a key “doubt” tactic the fossil fuel industry has deployed for decades to block regulations such as those governing tiny particle (PM2.5) pollution.
  • June 9: PHMSA Puts Pipeline Profits Above Worker, Public Safety. The federal agency that regulates safe transport of hazardous materials moved to weaken regulations around pipeline safety, just a few weeks after it ruled that states can’t prioritize safety concerns over economic impacts when it comes to pipelines. Yes, you read that right: The Trump administration has made pipelines LESS safe.
  • June 12: Ag Chief Says National Forests Are for Mining, Logging and Ranching. In a new “blueprint for the future,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue laid out a plan for wholesale expansion of mining, fracking, logging, and grazing in national forests. If it’s adopted, the policy will likely worsen air, water, and soil quality.

More to come?

It feels like there’s little remaining for the Trump administration to do to move U.S. environmental protections back to 1970 or before. But we’re bracing ourselves for more, because on June 26, Trump announced his intention to nominate William Perry Pendley as director of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency within the Interior Department that leases drilling, fracking, and other development on public lands.

Pendley was appointed to a deputy director role at BLM in July 2019. A week later, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt contracted with him to be the agency’s acting director. (The job’s been vacant since Trump took office.) As we reported on the Climate and COVID-19 Policy Tracker, in early May Bernhardt extended Perry’s acting director contract for the 32nd time — a neat way around triggering the Senate confirmation process for political appointees.

Although it looks different, some public lands advocates wonder if an actual nomination might prove to be more of the same.

“My first thought was that they would try to run down the clock, wait on sending the nomination to the Senate,” says Aaron Weiss, deputy director of conservation nonprofit The Center for Western Priorities. Delaying the nomination for just a couple weeks would put it into the last 180 days of the current session of Congress, which — thanks to the obscure set of rules that govern the confirmation process — effectively avoids a confirmation hearing.

“But that would also then require Sen. Murkowski to play ball and just sit on the nomination,” Weiss says, referring to Alaska’s Republican senior senator, who chairs the committee that would vote to recommend Perry’s confirmation to the full Senate. “So when Murkowski said, ‘Great, we’re going to hold a fast hearing,’ and did not say ‘I’m going to quickly confirm the guy,’ that really had me scratching my head,” Weiss said.

Murkowski may already know there are enough votes to confirm Pendley, Weiss said, or “she could be annoyed enough at Trump — because Murkowski does have an independent streak — that she intends to have a real hearing.”

That independent streak came out in early June, when Murkowski publicly supported former defense secretary James Mattis’ brutal denunciation of Trump for threatening to use the military to stop anti-racism protests. Trump retaliated by vowing to campaign against her in the future. “At some point, the [president’s] Black Lives Matter comments and the homophobic comments,” said Weiss, “are those even a bridge too far for Senator Murkowski? That’s one possibility.”

But confirmed or rejected, hearings on Pendley’s nomination might have election-year implications for three of the committee’s Republicans. Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Steve Daines of Montana, and Arizona’s Martha McSally are all in competitive re-election races, and Democrats would likely question Pendley about his disdain for Native American land rights and spiritual practices, as well as the Trump administration’s efforts to mine and drill near Native American sacred sites. ”Particularly with Pendley’s anti-tribal comments, that doesn’t fly in Arizona, and it certainly doesn’t fly in Montana or Colorado,” Weiss said.

Moreover, even if he’s not confirmed, there’s a chance Pendley could remain acting director, if the Trump administration decides to take its chances with a loophole in the Vacancies Reform Act [which bars anyone from filling a vacant position requiring Senate confirmation for more than 210 days without a confirmation hearing – Ed.], according to Weiss. So why is the administration floating a formal Pendley nomination, instead of just re-upping his “acting director” status?

“The short answer is, I don’t know!” Weiss said. “It will be interesting to see how this plays out.”

In the meantime, Pendley remains the BLM’s acting director, with much of the power to continue expanding drilling, mining, and logging on public lands, but little of a confirmed director’s accountability.

Just one year into his “temporary” role, Pendley has gutted the BLM of senior staff by following through on a Bernhardt plan to move their jobs to locations in western states. Most of the 173 BLM employees faced with these mandatory re-assignments have opted to leave the agency, Government Executive reported in early March. Pendley has dramatically expanded mining, drilling, and logging on public lands, and he has attacked environmental regulations that extractive industries find pesky, such as proposing to eliminate the public’s right to a 15-day protest period following timber sales on public lands.

“It’s very hard to find anything of consequence that he has signed, and that’s not an accident,” Weiss says. “That’s because they know they’re in violation of the Vacancies Reform Act. So everything of consequence that would need to legally stick has either been signed above him at the assistant secretary or secretary level, or below him at the state director level.”

On Tuesday, July 7, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, filed a complaintabout both Pendley and David Vela, acting director of the National Parks Service, alleging that their long tenure without confirmation violates the Vacancies Reform Act. The complaint also claims that Pendley’s de facto acting appointment violates the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which states that the BLM director must “have a broad background and substantial experience in public land and natural resource management.” Pendley has a background in public lands law, but no land or resource management experience.

Many environmental groups and state attorneys general have been paying attention to Trump’s blistering pace of rollbacks and other pro-fossil energy moves, and are taking the administration to court over some of them. But amid the coronavirus pandemic’s tolls of illness, death, grief, and unemployment, combined with the ongoing nationwide reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality against Black people, the public seems to have barely noticed the pile of gifts that Trump has given to the fossil fuel sector over the past four months, including the attacks on clean air and clean water protections.

So it looks like we’re going to have to grapple with all these crises at once, because the climate can’t wait any longer for us to find the perfect moment for action. Left unchallenged and unchecked, Trump’s climate rollbacks and fossil fuel favors threaten to lock us into two or more decades of dependence on oil and gas, slow the transition to clean power, and degrade the health and wellbeing of communities across the country.

SUPPORT THIS WORK! Our Climate and COVID-19 Policy Tracker is entirely reader-and-listener supported. Just as the coronavirus pandemic, sadly, shows no signs of disappearing any time soon, the fossil fuel industry shows no sign of slowing its pursuit of total deregulation — right at a time when scientists say the window of opportunity is closing for eliminating CO2 emissions and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. If you find our tracking efforts useful, and we hope you do, please consider supporting this work via our Patreon page or a one-time donation (it’s a tax write-off!).

Website | + posts

Amy Westervelt is the editor-in-chief of Drilled News, creator and host of the Drilled podcast, and founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network, named AdWeek's Podcast Network of the Year in 2019. An award-winning print and audio journalist, Amy has contributed to The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, as well as KQED, The California Report, Capital Public Radio, and many other outlets. She is the 2015 winner of the Rachel Carson award for "women greening journalism," and a 2016 winner of an Edward R. Murrow award for her series on the impacts of the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada. In 2019, the Drilled podcast won the Online News Association's "Excellence in Audio Storytelling" award.

+ posts

Emily J. Gertz is senior editor of Drilled News. A longtime environmental reporter and editor, her work has appeared in HuffPost, Reveal, Arctic Today, The Guardian, Popular Science, Scientific American, Sierra, and more.