Trump Suffers a Rare Setback in War on Environmental Protections
Policy + Politics

Trump Suffers a Rare Setback in War on Environmental Protections

Joshua Roberts

Environmentalists and their Democratic allies scored an important but rare victory on Wednesday against the Trump Administration’s relentless war on environmental protections and climate change rules.

The GOP-dominated Senate voted 51 to 49 to turn back a Trump administration effort to repeal an Obama-era regulation to control the release of methane from oil and gas wells on public lands that contribute mightily to climate change and public health problems.

The victory came as President Trump and the White House continue to reel from the congressional and public uproar over Trump’s dismissal of FBI director James B. Comey amid a mounting federal and congressional probe of possible Trump campaign links to Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

The victory was made possible by three moderate-to-conservative Senate Republicans – Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They broke with their party to join with Democrats in upholding the rule that would oblige energy companies to capture harmful methane gas that had been burned off or flared” at drilling sites.

Related: Trump’s Rollback on Clean Air and Water Rules Could Raise Health Care Costs

The rule that the Senate narrowly upheld was promulgates the waning months of President Obama’s second term.  By doing so, Congress has helped prevent an estimated 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere.

Although methane releases on government owned land constitute a relatively small share of greenhouse gas emissions vented nationally, scientists say that methane is at least 25 percent more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

McCain in a statement said that “Improving the control of methane emissions is an important public health and air quality issue.” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters, told the New York Times that “This is clearly a huge win for our health and our climate.”

Victories of this sort are hard to come by in a Trump administration that is skeptical at best about climate change science and that is systematically dismantling environmental protections  that impede industry profits.

Moreover, yesterday’s vote was dwarfed by a previously unbroken string of victories by Trump and congressional Republicans to reverse an array of Obama-administration environmental, gun safety, work place and other regulations during the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency.

Related: Environmentalists’ Worst Fears About Trump Are Coming True

Trump promised during the campaign to take a wrecking ball to “job-killing” government regulations and red tape that he argued frustrated economic growth and unnecessarily added to industry’s cost. Once in office, he and congressional Republicans seized on the obscure 1996 Congressional Review Act that grants new, incoming administrations a brief window of opportunity to kill off late-inning regulations left behind by their predecessor.

A new president has up to 60 legislative days to propose the repeal of an executive regulation and it can be passed in the House and Senate by simple majorities.  

Before this year, Congress exercised this authority only once before, to nullify a regulation on ergonomics that was promulgated by President Bill Clinton during the last year of his second term. But with the eager encouragement of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Trump has repeatedly invoked the Congressional Review Act to mow down 13 separate Obama regulations before time ran out on his authority this week.

Some of the regulations that fell victim to Trump’s onslaught are highly technical and likely mean more to businesses and industrial sectors than to average Americans. For instance, the first regulation rolled back in February forced disclosure of payments that oil, natural gas and mining companies make to foreign governments. The Securities and Exchange Commission rule had been sought by Congress and was designed to increase the transparency of the oil industry and curb corruption involving oil-rich countries.

Related: The Republican War on Obama’s Regulations Is About to Begin

But at least a half dozen other regulations that have been overturned by Congress this year have important implications for the environment and for the health and welfare of average Americans. Those include the following:

    • Gun Safety.  In the wake of a series of mass shootings at schools and workplaces, the Obama administration pushed through a rule to strengthen federal background checks of gun buyers. The rule would have prevented an estimated 75,000 people with mental disorders from being able to purchase a firearm. But the regulation was strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association and its allies on Capitol Hill.
    • Drug testing. The Labor Department adopted a rule that limited states from requiring that applicants for unemployment insurance take drug tests as a condition of receiving benefits. The Obama administration considered those state requirements excessive. The new rule mandated that tests could only be ordered for applicants if they were looking for work in jobs that required regular drug testing. 

Related: The Five Biggest Winners and Losers in Trump’s Fiscal 2018 Budget 

      • Workplace safety. The Labor Department adopted another rule aimed at tracking and reducing workplace injuries and deaths. The regulation required federal contractors to disclose and correct serious safety violations as a condition for seeking additional work. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups complained that the new rule would discourage businesses from seeking new federal contracts and creating new jobs. 
      • Mountain top removal – The Stream Protection Rule was designed to protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests from rocks and debris generated by coal industry surface mining and so-called mountaintop removal. That rule was deemed critical by environmentalists and public health advocacy groups in Appalachian coal communities to protect the nation’s waterways and prevent the contamination of drinking water and other public health threats.
      • Climate Change. The Obama administration required federal land managers to consider climate change and other long-term effects of proposed development on public lands. The regulation had been put in place by the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees more than 245 million acres of public lands.
      • Educational standards. The Obama administration adopted two regulations on measuring school performance and teacher training under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a law Obama signed in 2015 with bipartisan support.

One rule required that federally funded teacher preparation programs be assessed based on the academic outcomes of those teachers’ students. The other was designed to help states identify failing schools and develop plans to improve them.