Like a defeated and retreating army, Trump administration officials left Washington, D.C., burning and shredding environmental laws and policies even as they walked out the door.

The scorched earth policy of unraveling Obama-era initiatives in favor of widespread deregulation began four years ago, and entailed many dozens of rules and policies. Included are rollbacks of regulations that protect endangered wildlife, migratory birds and wetlands, and regulate clean air, planet-warming gases and energy efficiency.

California Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld called it “vandalism.”   

“We thought the world had ended after (President George W.) Bush, but it looks like a picnic compared to what Trump’s done,” Blumenfeld told CalMatters. “It’s been very surgical, very intentional and incredibly comprehensive.”

Now President Joe Biden’s cabinet is left with the task of eliminating so many environmental rollbacks that it will have to perform triage: The Trump administration and Congress took at least 175 actions to roll back climate change rules and policies, plus several dozen that regulate other environmental problems, according to trackers compiled by Harvard and Columbia University.

The president suggested that nearly every move by the Trump administration related to the environment merits a second look: He immediately ordered federal agencies to review scores of federal actions taken during the last four years to determine if they harmed public health or the environment.

“It is…the policy of my Administration to listen to science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable…,” Biden wrote in an executive order on his first day in office.

Biden immediately rejoined the Paris climate agreement for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And he reconstituted a governmental group to examine the impacts of greenhouse gases on public health and social justice.

He also issued a directive to his staff to “consider revising vehicle fuel economy and emissions standards.” California has the nation’s worst air quality, so this issue is arguably one of the most pressing environmental problems facing the state.

He also ordered a review of Trump rules that relaxed limits on methane leaks from oil and gas operations and loosened some energy efficiency standards.

The cascade of rollbacks in Trump’s last days in office left plenty for the new president to undo. The feds have an ally in their coming work: California backstops some of the regulatory unraveling with its own laws.

The state also has been leading the legal charge to halt many of them, including relaxed air quality and pesticide regulations. On a single day — the day before the inauguration — California filed suit against the Trump administration nine times, seeking to overturn its last-minute moves to weaken national environmental laws and policies.

“In the past few years, the White House abdicated its responsibility on key issues like climate change, wildfires, and infrastructure. But every time we lacked for a partner, California stepped up anyway. We accelerated our clean car efforts and made record investments in wildfire mitigation,” Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter to Biden the day before his inauguration.

How hard will it be to erase the Trump rollbacks?

Hikers in Death Valley National Park, Furnace Creek on March 7, 2020. Photo via iStock
Hikers in Death Valley National Park, Furnace Creek on March 7, 2020. The Trump administration, days before leaving, tried to undo a California desert protection plan. Photo via iStock

How long and how difficult will it be for Biden to reverse rollbacks and fix the environmental damage they have caused? There’s no easy answer.

Midnight mischief — last-minute actions by a lame duck — can generally be undone quickly through executive order or sometimes swift congressional action. In addition to the directives he issued in his first day in office, Biden pledged to freeze the last-minute “midnight regulations” that had yet to take effect.

Other policies and guidance documents can be rapidly rewritten via executive order. But some will need to follow new federal rulemaking procedures and public comment periods that can take years. 

The Biden administration also can stop defending cases in which the Trump administration has been sued, and then begin the process of remaking a new rule. 

For instance, with only days left, the Trump administration proposed to undo a California desert protection plan that took decades to develop. The changes would remove protection of more than 2 million acres, allow for mining operations and strip additional conservation safeguards from another 2 million acres near Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks.

The new administration can simply allow an unfinalized, last-minute proposed rule like this to wither on the vine.

What about the first 100 days? Biden’s campaign laid out a 100-day to-do list and pledged to fund nearly $2 trillion in environmental initiatives. Among the elements of the Biden environmental agenda:

  • Achieve 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050
  • Include climate change considerations in foreign policy and national security plans
  • Focus on environmental justice and public health
  • Reduce emissions from cars and trucks and encourage fuel efficiency
  • Wean the country off fossil fuels and discontinue new domestic oil and gas drilling

Ask the Magic Eight Ball

How likely is Biden’s team to take action on environmental issues, from endangered species to greenhouse gases? Ask the CalMatters Magic Eight Ball for our best guesses.

Created by John D’Agostino, with reporting from Julie Cart and Rachel Becker.

Biden’s biggest challenge: climate change

Unlike Trump, who called climate change a hoax, Biden calls it an existential threat to the planet. 

On his first day in office, Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, an international treaty aimed at cutting greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. That’s just a first step, the Biden campaign said. The agreement’s pledges are voluntary, unenforceable and, experts say, not aggressive enough to curb global temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels. 

What is more important to climate watchers: The policies Biden intends to adopt.

Among them is Biden’s day one move to restore a working group tasked with establishing the full economic, climate, health and environmental justice costs of greenhouse gas pollution. 

In a list posted just before his inauguration, Biden specifically tasked his agencies with reviewing an 11th-hour rule restricting regulation of greenhouse gas emissions to only the industrial plants and other sources that exceed 3% of the nation’s total emissions. That would block regulation of climate warming pollution from a range of industries, including oil and gas, according to a California lawsuit

The courts have helped kickstart some of the Biden administration’s environmental moves. Just before the inauguration, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to gut the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut about a third of climate-warming pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants by 2030. 

California has its own suite of policies aimed at greening the grid, and the state met the requirements of the Obama administration’s clean power plan more than 15 years early. But it also has a front-row seat to the effects of climate change, from record temperatures and rampant wildfires to rising seas, which is why the state joined in suing the federal government over the rollback and weaker replacement.

What can Biden do about oil and gas?

This is a case of California controlling its own destiny — mostly.

To begin with, 90% of California’s oil and gas production is managed by the state. So while federal agencies have autonomy over projects on federal land, these operations are dwarfed by California’s state-controlled oil and gas fields.

What can, or will, Biden do? The president issued an executive order calling for a “pause” on new oil and gas leasing on federal land “to the extent possible.” In addition, his climate plans call for less reliance on fossil fuels.

However, Biden’s approach to fracking — injecting liquids underground to extract oil and gas — isn’t clear cut. About 20% of California’s oil is produced from fracked wells, according to the state

During the campaign, Biden made contradictory comments about fracking. In a 2019 debate, Biden said “we would make sure it’s eliminated.” But in a debate last year he only said he opposed “new fracking.” The new president provided clarity in his second week in the White House, saying “We are not going to ban fracking.”

In California, fracking comes under the control of the state. Newsom in September called for a ban by 2024, although the state continues to approve new projects.

The crude oil lying three miles off the coast is a different matter.

In 2017 Trump signed an executive order that could open waters off the California coast to new oil and gas drilling, tracts that were placed off limits at least through 2022 by President Obama. The last time federal oil leases were offered off California was in 1984. California, however, has thrown an obstacle in the path of Trump’s efforts by saying it would not allow new pipelines and facilities to transport any new oil produced offshore. 

Biden has not fleshed out specific policies regarding public lands, but is likely to discontinue offshore leases as part of his plan to pare back new domestic oil and gas production.

On inauguration day, he issued a broad directive that he said “jumpstarts swift, initial action” related to climate change by “revoking, revising, or replacing” Trump’s orders and permits.

Clearing the air

On day one, Biden tasked his agencies with reviewing the Trump administration’s decision not to strengthen health standards for smog and soot

Trump’s EPA dismissed key academic scientific advisors and decided against tightening the standards for fine particles and ozone, despite findings that they are too lax to protect the public and could contribute to tens of thousands of premature deaths

About 92% of Californians already live in places that violate existing federal standards for these pollutants. Strengthening them would force California’s local and state agencies to come up with more aggressive plans to cut even more pollution than they are now planning. 

Trump’s EPA also changed a rule that required major polluters, such as oil refineries and chemical plants, to permanently maintain controls for hazardous air pollutants once they’ve hit a certain emissions threshold. Under Trump’s change, facilities that dip below that threshold can pollute up to the limit and avoid requirements to monitor and report emissions. 

The Biden administration has promised to spotlight environmental justice and tasked the EPA with reviewing the rule, which California has challenged in court. Still, it could take years to see major air-quality moves from a gutted EPA.

Cars, trucks and planes

Biden has a lot of work to do to revamp national fuel economy and greenhouse gas rules for cars and trucks that the Trump administration unraveled  — and he pledged to start on day one

The moves will be critical for California’s air pollution and climate goals. Tailpipes are the biggest source of both climate warming pollution and smog.

California has had the unique authority to set its own tailpipe pollution standards for cars and trucks for decades. The state also played a key role in negotiating nationwide fuel economy and greenhouse gas rules under the Obama administration.

Then Trump revoked California’s authority to set limits on greenhouse gases from tailpipes and weakened federal fuel economy rules

Biden tasked his agencies with establishing “ambitious, job-creating fuel economy standards” and reviewing both prongs of the Trump administration’s attacks on greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards by next summer. He directed his administration to work with labor unions, states and the auto industry. 

That means we’re likely to see California at the negotiating table once again as the Biden administration develops new clean car rules his campaign has said will go “beyond what the Obama-Biden Administration put in place.” 

California got around the Trump order by cutting a deal with five major automakers, which agreed to meet California requirements nationwide in exchange for some extra time and flexibility. After Biden’s victory, more car companies are signaling a willingness to negotiate

The ultimate goal, the campaign said, is to phase out the sale of gas powered passenger vehicles entirely and push for yearly improvements in heavy duty trucks — where California has led the way

Also on Biden’s radar is the Trump administration’s recent aircraft emissions standard that the EPA said was not projected to reduce emissions, and critics have called “industry handout.” Biden has tasked his EPA with reviewing it. 

Wading into wetlands and water supply

Arial view of Sacramento River and San Joaquin River Delta.
Arial view of Sacramento River and San Joaquin River Delta. Photo by Bill_Dally via iStock

Biden is wading into a morass of water deregulation and rollbacks left by the outgoing administration. 

Among them is the move to exclude many wetlands and streams from federal protection against pollution and development under the Clean Water Act. Trump ridiculed them as puddles and ditches, and the oil and gas industry, builders and farmers have long sought a relaxation of federal rules.

California has its own wetlands and pollution protections. But state officials say the federal rule change leaves water that the state relies on for drinking, agriculture, wildlife and recreation vulnerable to upstream pollution from other states.  

Then there’s a longstanding fight over how much water should be diverted from Northern California’s rivers and piped hundreds of miles to supply drinking water and irrigate millions of acres of Central Valley farmland

Trump pledged to send more water to Central Valley farmers, and reportedly quashed a federal report that found doing so would harm endangered species. Instead, the administration adopted two federal permits that California officials said do not adequately protect species or sensitive habitats.

California has pushed back with lawsuits. And Biden has directed his administration to review wetlands protections and the two federal permits underlying state and federal water allocation decisions. But it’s unclear how quickly we’ll see action on these fronts: California’s water wars are notoriously complicated, particularly during what could become a multi-year drought

Clearing forests to reduce wildfires

This is where the federal government is almost fully in charge: California’s landmass is 48% owned by the federal government, and Sacramento has jurisdiction over just 3% of the Golden State’s forests. 

While everyone agrees that forest health — a euphemism for clearing trees to prevent fire — should be a top priority in the West, the U.S. Forest Service, not the states, largely sets the agenda. The Trump administration showed little interest in the topic, other than to blame California officials for poor forest management and suggesting more “raking” could help. 

Trump did little to alter recent forest practices. But a policy of benign neglect can be as devastating to a landscape as proactive good intentions. 

The Biden administration is left to follow through on an agreement signed in August that pledges both California and the Forest Service will clear flammable trees and brush from one million acres each year. That well-intentioned-but-unfunded mandate could make a real difference in reducing fire risk, should the new administration support it. 

Deferred forest maintenance that piled up under Obama and Trump administrations now falls to Biden, who has not articulated a forest management policy.

Also, Biden could loosen the federal purse strings when it comes to disaster relief, with wildfires creating a crippling economic drain on California. New federal guidelines finalized in December mean that well-off states like California will have to shoulder a larger share of recovery costs. But experts expect Biden to offer more assistance to the politically powerful, Democrat-led state.

Chinook to condors: Protecting endangered species and migratory birds

Decades ago, a clutch of foundational environmental laws were crafted to speak on behalf of creatures that cannot speak for themselves: animals and plants. Aspects of those statutes — always attacked by developers and industries who see the laws as restrictive and costly — were carved away during the Trump administration.

Biden and his Secretary of the Interior appointee, Deb Halaand, have pledged to protect imperiled species, reconstitute a suite of dropped protections and revisit Trump’s interpretations of key environmental statutes. How that might be accomplished is not always straightforward.

Many Trump-era environmental changes are entangled in legal challenges that would fall to the Biden administration to defend, said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. That could mean that Biden’s appointees can just stop defending them in court. 

Among the Trump rollbacks, all of which California and other states have sued to block:

  • The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a 1918 law that protects more than 1,000 bird species. Changes by the Trump administration allow industry to kill birds without penalty as long as the act was unintentional. 
  • The Endangered Species Act protects 173 animal species and 286 plants in California, including the California condor, chinook salmon and the gray wolf. Trump’s changes reduced the designation of critical habitat and allow species decisions to include economic analyses. With less than a week left in office, Trump’s Interior Department removed protection from more than three million acres of California, Oregon and Washington habitat for the Northern spotted owl in deference to logging interests.
  • The National Environmental Policy Act mandates an overarching, science-based environmental impact review that guides development and other activities. Agencies were ordered to limit the scope and duration of these reviews, shorten public comment periods and remove the requirement to consider cumulative or long-term impacts of a project.

Shining a light on energy efficiency

Federal policies are often wrought for political gain and public good. But this may be the first time federal rules have been rolled back on account of vanity: Trump reversed the shift to low-energy light bulbs, saying the light they emit is unflattering. And he told the Energy Department to jettison requirements for low-flow shower heads because they failed to rinse his hair properly. 

The administration also exempted some clothes washers and dryers from energy efficiency standards. California led a coalition of states opposing Trump’s move. 

Biden can reverse the rollbacks via executive order. On his first day in office, he directed the Department of Energy to review appliance and building efficiency rollbacks.

As a candidate, he folded building and consumer product energy savings into his climate plan, including initiatives to upgrade millions of buildings and establish national building performance standards.  Big deal? California thinks so. State law requires a doubling of statewide energy savings by 2030. All sectors of California’s built environment — state buildings, commercial and industrial structures and schools — will be asked to do their part, along with 9 million single-family homes.

60W Traditional Incandescent

Incandescent light bulb - Wikipedia
43W
Energy-Saving Incandescent


43
15W CFL

15
12W LED

12
Energy $ Saved (%)
compared to incandescent
~25%~75%~75%
Annual Energy Cost*$4.80$3.50$1.20$1.00
Bulb Life1000 hours1000 to 3000 hours10,000 hours25,000 hours
*Based on 2 hrs/day of usage, an electricity rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, shown in U.S. dollars.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Tackling a toxic soup

Biden has tasked his EPA with taking a close look at the Trump administration’s actions on toxic chemicals, including decisions related to two dangerous contaminants in drinking water — perchlorate and lead.

Also likely in the sights of his EPA staff: “forever” chemicals that have been linked to kidney cancer and other serious health conditions. 

Biden’s campaign said it would prioritize action on these chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are used to make non-stick and waterproof coatings, firefighting foams and food packaging. California has long pushed the federal government to take a tougher stance on them.

The Trump administration had a PFAS action plan, which included funding and research, updating a database and testing at the request of states. The EPA also announced just days before the inauguration that it would regulate two common “forever chemicals” in drinking water and proposed testing for about two dozen more. 

But environmental advocates have called that plan “toothless” and the EPA’s first steps “long overdue.” 

The Biden campaign promised to get moving on PFAS “instead of making empty promises with no follow-through.” Biden’s list includes setting drinking water limits and designating them as hazardous substances, a move that will be critical to forcing polluters to pay for clean up. 

In early February, Biden’s EPA took the extraordinary step of reviewing the Trump administration’s assessment of one of the chemicals because the “conclusions …were compromised by political interference.” The EPA removed the assessment from its website. 

Meanwhile, California has already started requiring water systems to address PFAS contamination — and it’s likely to get pricey. At least 146 public water systems serving nearly 16 million Californians have detected traces of two of the most common chemicals in well water. 

Focus on farms

California, which grows more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, has squared off against Trump administration efforts to weaken pesticide rules repeatedly over the past four years. Now Biden has stepped into the middle of that fight. 

Among the moves California has opposed is the Trump administration’s decision to reject the Obama EPA’s recommendations to ban the neurotoxic pesticide chlorpyrifos on food crops. Chlorpyrifos has been shown to harm brain development in children. Trump’s EPA proposed new safety measures for use of the pesticide, but critics say they leave children unprotected.   

California announced in 2019 that it would eliminate chlorpyrifos from nearly all agricultural uses starting this year. But children in California could still eat residue of the pesticide on food imported from other states, and environmental advocates urge a nationwide ban.

Also the Trump administration rolled back a rule requiring a safety radius of up to 100 feet around pesticide application equipment aimed at limiting farmworker poisonings. The Trump administration cut off the safety zone at a farm’s borders, and California has sued.

Biden’s campaign promised to protect farmworkers from pesticide exposure. And, in a slew of day one instructions, the president directed his administration to review the Trump EPA’s chlorpyrifos decisions and the pesticide spraying safety zone, which could mean stricter rules for agricultural chemicals ahead.

A truce in the war on science

Biden inherited a hollowed out EPA and new rules that will complicate his administration’s efforts to roll back the rollbacks. 

The EPA workforce has dropped by at least 1,200 workers since Trump’s early presidency. Panels of scientific experts were dismissed. The executive director of a program tasked with comprehensive climate assessments was replaced with a climate change denier. Trump even claimed “I don’t think science knows” about the reality of climate change. (Science does, and it’s real.)

Those are just a handful of the nearly 200 attacks on science that the Union of Concerned Scientists has tracked during the Trump administration. 

One that has scientists especially concerned is the so-called “science transparency rule.” The rule requires the EPA to weigh studies — related to, say, health effects of soot or pesticides — less heavily if the researchers cannot make the raw data available. 

The problem is that the raw data might include confidential personal or medical information about a study’s subjects. The effect, opponents say, is to hamstring the EPA by preventing it from using the best available science when crafting public health rules.

California and other states filed suit the day before Biden’s inauguration to challenge the rule. And at the beginning of February, a federal court killed the rule after Biden’s EPA requested that it be tossed out.

In general, Biden vows a renewed focus on science.

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Julie Cart joined CalMatters as a projects and environment reporter in 2016 after a long career at the Los Angeles Times, where she held many positions: sportswriter, national correspondent and environment...

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Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master's degree to become a journalist...