The White House chose the week the United States became the epicenter of a historic pandemic to virtually stop policing big polluters, privatize a bedrock federal food safety job, advance a mining road through a pristine swath of northern Alaska and revive a regulatory rollback so difficult to defend that the Trump administration abandoned the effort last year at the peak of a high-profile fight.
On Thursday afternoon, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would suspend enforcement of bedrock clean air and water laws, leaving the fossil fuel, chemical and agribusiness industries to police themselves amid a historic public health crisis.
Hours later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed a waiver allowing a private company to take over inspection duties at a Tyson Foods beef slaughterhouse.
By Friday morning, news broke that the administration was close to finalizing its plan to roll back Obama-era rules raising fuel-economy standards on new vehicles, resuming a fight that delighted the oil industry, divided automakers and revealed a double standard on states’ rights as the White House sought to bring California to its knees. And by midday, the administration published a final review of a proposed 211-mile road that would cut through a portion of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and open up an area rich in copper, zinc and other minerals.
The efforts would be shocking if they weren’t so routine for an administration that began flaying environmental safeguards within days of its inauguration. But the actions took on a grave new tone as the administration’s backfooted response to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, threw the nation into chaos.
Public health officials scrambled to contain an outbreak that, by Thursday night, had killed nearly 1,000 Americans and infected close to 86,000 more as doctors openly pleaded for basic medical supplies. Roughly 3.3 million Americans filed jobless claims this week as the crisis caused an economic shockwave unlike anything in modern history, smashing the previous single-week record of 696,000 reported job losses.
“Of all the bad things Trump has done on the environment, this is the worst,” Daniel Becker, the director of the nonprofit Safe Climate Campaign’s Center for Auto Safety, said Friday morning. “This is a really dastardly decision and it cannot stand.”
The moves offer yet another jarring real-time example of what the author Naomi Klein dubbed “the shock doctrine”: the phenomenon wherein profiteers and their allies in government exploit the mayhem of a public emergency to push through unpopular policy changes that benefit industry.
The timing was no coincidence. In its official filing, the EPA cited the pandemic as the reason to temporarily ease agency enforcement, which research published last year showed was already dramatically weakened.
“In general, the E.P.A. does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the E.P.A. agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the E.P.A. upon request,” Susan Bodine, EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, wrote in the order.
In a letter to Trump last week, the oil industry’s biggest trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, requested regulatory relief, including “temporarily waiving non-essential compliance obligations.”
The EPA’s order drew swift condemnation. The Center for Biological Integrity called it an “unconscionable” priority as the administration refuses to “push utilities to help ordinary people struggling to keep their lights and water on.” Gina McCarthy, who served as EPA administrator during President Barack Obama’s second term, said the decision amounted to “an open license to pollute. Plain and simple.”
“The administration should be giving its all toward making our country healthier right now,” McCarthy, who now leads the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Instead it is taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favors for polluters that threaten public health.”
In a Thursday statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the change is “designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”
An EPA spokesperson told HuffPost the new policy was “not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules” and said the agency would “retain all our authorities and will exercise them appropriately.”
“It is a temporary policy and will be terminated when this crisis is past,” Corry Schiermeyer, a senior spokesperson at the agency, said by email Friday.
Another EPA spokesperson, Andrea Woods, defended the agency’s actions as a whole, describing the efforts in an email as fulfilling “our duty to the American people.”
The USDA waiver, released Thursday, marks the first time the Food Safety and Inspection Service has granted a request to reduce federal inspections of a beef plant, in what the watchdog Food & Water Watch described as the agency’s “experimenting with the safety of our food.” Tyson Foods requested the waiver for its Holcomb, Kansas, beef slaughterhouse last summer as the Trump administration loosened rules on pork plants.
“They’re doing it behind the back of American consumers through an obscure regulatory waiver process,” said Tony Corbo Sr., Food & Water Watch’s government affairs representative. “We’re looking at a process that does not require public notice and comment. Even worse, the results of this experiment will never even be shared with the public.”
A USDA spokesperson said via email on Friday that the Food Safety and Inspection Service is working to modernize its beef slaughter inspection system and that under the waiver, “inspectors will continue to conduct carcass-by-carcass inspection of every animal as required by law to ensure that Americans can safely enjoy their dinner.” The official accused “special interests” of “using this crisis to promote an agenda.”
“In the midst of this pandemic, dedicated USDA employees are working around the clock to provide abundant, healthy, wholesome, affordable, available food and it is disappointing to see so-called food safety advocates take that for granted,” the spokesperson said.
The tailpipe emissions rule may ultimately prove the most dramatic. Amid mounting climate change-fueled disasters in 2018, the White House formally proposed scrapping a deal the Obama administration brokered between automakers and California regulators to bring fuel-economy standards for vehicles sold in the United States in line with those of other developed countries.
The deal had been a win-win, agreed to by carmakers and regulators, and popular in survey after survey with voters of all political stripes. The rule required average fuel mileage to reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, a target that would halve tailpipe emissions, reduce oil consumption by 12 billion barrels and save drivers $3,200 to $5,700 in gasoline costs over a vehicle’s lifetime.
The Trump administration countered that with a proposal to freeze 2020 emissions standards in place until 2026 based on analysis that was filled with mathematical errors and dubious assumptions about the near-term risks associated with increased greenhouse gas pollution, and that completely downplayed the long-term threat of global warming.
California, which wields special statutory powers under the federal Clean Air Act, refused to accept the proposal, and the conflict simmered until late 2019 when it boiled over into a full-blown assault in which the White House invoked rarely used federal powers to punish the Golden State for refusing to adopt its proposal. In a particularly eyebrow-raising move, the Department of Justice opened an antitrust investigation into a group of auto giants that took California’s side.
In October, the Trump administration abruptly retreated and signaled it would reconsider its approach. In February, the Justice Department dropped its probe. In March, the EPA’s own data found that automakers hit a new record for fuel efficiency in 2018 and were expected to make more gains once the 2019 analysis was complete.
Yet under the policy expected to be announced next week, the White House reportedly plans to call for slashing the Obama-era standards of 5% annual increases in fuel efficiency through 2026 to 1.5%. An EPA spokesman directed HuffPost to the White House Office of Management and Budget “as it is still under interagency review.” The OMB did not respond to an email requesting comment Friday.
“There is no health or scientific justification for this atrocious attack on our families’ health and future,” Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator during the Clinton administration and current board chair of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement Friday.
Finally, the administration published a final environmental impact statement on the so-called ‘Road to Resources’ project on Friday. The gravel road would provide access to Alaska’s Ambler Mineral Belt, where Vancouver-based Trilogy Metals Inc. is looking to build at least two mines. The Bureau of Land Management is expected to make a final decision on the project after 30 days.
The administration’s announcements marked the second wave of actions its environmental agencies have taken since the pandemic escalated into a domestic crisis this month.
Last week, with oil prices at an 18-year low, the Interior Department offered at auction more than 78 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drillers, with the lease sale ultimately bringing in $93 million for less than 400,000 acres. The administration also approved a nearly 500-acre expansion of a gold and silver mine on federal lands near Bullhead City, Arizona, announced plans to auction off 45,00 acres in southeast New Mexico and West Texas for oil and gas development, and greenlit construction of a major natural gas export terminal and pipeline project in Oregon.
In another effort to throw Big Oil a lifeline, the administration was looking to spend up to $3 billion to purchase tens of millions of barrels of oil from U.S. producers and fill the nation’s emergency reserve. But the Department of Energy suspended those plans on Thursday after funding was excluded from the $2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed this week.
In a tweet Thursday evening, Trump cheered for a comeback from the industry that he and his team have spent the last three years boosting:
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