Come the end of Obama’s presidency and the start of Trump’s, the tone didn’t just shift in the oval office; it was the beginning of the end for much of the Obama-era’s environmental policy. The beginnings were customary. Gina McCarthy made her exit after her service as the head of the EPA from 2013 to 2017. What followed is less so. And two EPA chiefs and nearly 100 rollbacks later, the current administration could not be more different from the last.
Nobody can speak more directly to these differences than McCarthy. She has seen the results of her own work slowly but surely become undone. Now the CEO of the non-profit environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, McCarthy and Mike Bloomberg co-wrote a new op-ed focused around one key point: Trump’s EPA is exacerbating the pollution problem, which makes the Covid-19 pandemic even deadlier, particularly for marginalized populations.
Harvard researchers recently found that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 [a measure of air pollution] leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”
Trump’s EPA Relaxes Pollution Reporting Obligations During Covid-19
Even still, Trump’s EPA relaxed pollution regulations late-March 2020. “The Environmental Protection Agency told coal, oil and gas, and power producers they were free to ignore pollution monitoring and reporting obligations – as long as they use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse,” McCarthy and co-author Mike Bloomberg wrote.
She’s referring to the EPA’s Enforcement Discretion Policy, which has been widely criticized. One outspoken critic is Tom Steyer, who called the move “an open invitation to pollute” in a recent interview.
The EPA doesn’t agree. “[The policy] is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules. For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting, the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case by case basis,” an EPA spokesperson told CNBC.
Rolling Back A Major Obama-era Policy (Which Could Save Up To 1,000 Lives Annually)
Beyond allowing companies to sidestep reporting obligations during Covid-19, Trump’s EPA also rolled back Obama’s fuel economy rule, which helped decrease carbon dioxide emissions by over 500 million metric tons.
“Abandoning the … standard will result in nearly 1,000 more people dying prematurely from air pollution,” McCarthy says, citing an EPA document that was deleted but recovered here through a web archive.
Weakening Toxics Standards That Regulate Power Plants
Additionally, the EPA recently reconsidered what it calls Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (or MATS) for Power Plants, “correcting flaws in the 2016 supplemental cost finding,” according to the EPA’s website.
MATS were originally put in place to place regulatory limits on the release of toxic chemicals, including mercury; but Trump’s EPA argued the standards didn’t make sense on cost-benefit. It then weakened standards, which were helping “saving more than 10,000 lives, avoiding 130,000 asthma attacks and nearly 5,000 heart attacks a year,” according to McCarthy.
EPA Refuses To Enforce Stricter Air Pollution Caps (Which Could Save An Estimated 12,500 Lives)
According to the EPA’s data, strengthening soot standard levels could save as many as 12,500 lives. Despite the promising metrics, the idea of tightening air pollution caps didn’t ultimately go through.
“Based on review of the scientific literature and recommendation from our independent science advisors, we are proposing to retain existing PM standards which will ensure the continued protection of both public health and the environment,” current EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an April press release.
While politicians think about best practices to get through these tough times, McCarthy is vehemently eying the upcoming election. “We must demand that our elected leaders put people, not polluters, first,” she says.
This article was originally published at Forbes, where I also maintain a column.