A Pass to Pollute: Environmental (Non)Enforcement Under the Trump Administration

A line graph (not showing any actual data) where the Y axis is an oil rig, and both lines are showing a downward trend.


Under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, enforce­ment of envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions has dropped to his­toric lows. Dur­ing fis­cal year (FY) 2019, the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) reduced its inspec­tions of reg­u­lat­ed facil­i­ties by almost half the aver­age annu­al rate per­formed by the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion. As a corol­lary, EPA’s civ­il and crim­i­nal enforce­ment case load fell to its low­est lev­el in a quar­ter cen­tu­ry. These and sim­i­lar declines across oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies are the direct con­se­quence of delib­er­ate admin­is­tra­tion efforts to restrict and cur­tail fed­er­al agen­cies’ com­pli­ance mon­i­tor­ing and enforce­ment activ­i­ty through rule­mak­ings, legal opin­ions, pol­i­cy mem­os and fund­ing reductions.

In addi­tion to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­cut­ting envi­ron­men­tal enforce­ment, the admin­is­tra­tion has been elim­i­nat­ing or scal­ing back key envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions, nul­li­fy­ing even the pos­si­bil­i­ty of enforc­ing them. The EPA and the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM), for exam­ple, have moved to elim­i­nate their respec­tive reg­u­la­tions on methane emis­sions from the oil and gas indus­try, open­ing the door for this potent green­house gas to spew essen­tial­ly unchecked from thou­sands of wells. And because the admin­is­tra­tion has dra­mat­i­cal­ly nar­rowed the def­i­n­i­tion of the waters of the Unit­ed States” that fall under the Clean Water Act, more than half of the nation’s wet­lands and mil­lions of miles of streams have lost fed­er­al pro­tec­tion entirely. 

Reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies also have tak­en steps to ham­string the rule­mak­ing process itself. The EPA, for exam­ple, is propos­ing to elim­i­nate con­sid­er­a­tion of impor­tant health and envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits when con­duct­ing cost-ben­e­fit reviews under the Clean Air Act. The agency intends to pur­sue sim­i­lar changes to cost-ben­e­fit analy­sis of reg­u­la­tions under oth­er statutes — all as an obvi­ous ploy to false­ly claim that the costs of new rules out­weigh their benefits.

The EPA has also pro­posed arbi­trary restric­tions on the use of sci­ence in its rule­mak­ing process­es, using the wide­ly accept­ed need to pro­tect per­son­al med­ical infor­ma­tion as an excuse to dis­count cer­tain peer-reviewed sci­en­tif­ic research.

Final­ly, the admin­is­tra­tion has pushed its own enforce­ment respon­si­bil­i­ties onto states, many of which have small envi­ron­men­tal and resource man­age­ment agen­cies that lack the capac­i­ty and exper­tise to ful­fill such respon­si­bil­i­ties on their own. The admin­is­tra­tion has done so while propos­ing year after year to slash the fed­er­al fund­ing that those state agen­cies rely on.