Trump’s EPA rewrote the rules on air, water energy. Now voters face a choice on climate change issues

Election Day will be a decision between deregulation or re-regulation. A look at Trump’s rollbacks and their long term effects nationwide.

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Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speaks on the environment at the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum in Jupiter, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.


Cherise Harris noticed a change in her eldest daughter soon after the family moved a block away from a 132-year-old coal-fired power plant in Painesville, Ohio.

The teen’s asthma attacks occurred more frequently, Harris said, and she started carrying an inhaler with her at all times.

The family didn’t know it at the time, but Painesville’s municipal-owned plant emits nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide – two pollutants that the American Lung Association says inflames air passages, causing shortness of breath, chest tightness, pain and wheezing. 

“It makes me wonder,” said Harris, who lives with her four children and fiancé. “Is that what triggered my daughter’s asthma?” 

Under President Donald Trump’s rule, the Painesville plant – and nearly 200 other coal-powered electric utilities like it – can emit more such pollutants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own projections. 

The rule is one of nearly 100 environmental rollbacks the Trump administration has pursued over the past four years to loosen regulations on everything from air and water quality to wildlife.

A majority of them already are in effect; others face court challenges. All threaten environmental protections that have been in place for decades. 

As Americans cast their ballots in next Tuesday’s election, voters have a choice: continued deregulation that could lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, worsening symptoms of climate change and mass species die-offs or a reversal of those policies and slate of new governmental restrictions.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who is Trump’s main challenger in the election, has promised a plan to fast-track the country to zero carbon dioxide emissions in the electricity sector by 2035. It’s similar to a new energy emissions model released Thursday by a team of researchers at the Clean Energy Futures project who say it’s possible to get to zero emissions in the electricity sector within two decades.

The team’s model shows solar and wind replacing coal and natural gas as the leading sources of electricity generation.

“When you set an ambitious target, like 100% clean energy, you see substantial improvements in air quality, and major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Kathy Fallon Lambert, senior advisor at the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and part of the research team.

“That’s not so surprising,” Lambert said. “But what was a bit surprising to us is that it’s achievable with existing technology and the costs are moderate.”

USA TODAY Network climate reporters fanned out across Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio to examine the effects of rollbacks of two key protections: One that diminishes air quality through Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy rule; the other threatening water quality through recent changes to the Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS.

The void of federal regulations has left some states, which are already in the midst of declining revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic, trying to maintain pre-Trump standards.

“The obvious thing (the rules) do is weaken pollution standards, or weaken environmental protections,” said Joseph Goffman, a former assistant administrator at the EPA and now the executive director of the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard University. “As they go into effect, the public is exposed to more pollution, more environmental damage, more emissions of greenhouse gases, than they otherwise would be exposed to thanks to these rules.”

“But these rules do something else,” Goffman said – what the administration really wants is to undo the law.

Trump EPA officials argue the opposite, despite what scientists and activists say. Officials believe rules changes have removed burdensome regulations without a cost to the environment.

“We have a really good environmental record,” U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an interview with the USA TODAY Network. Wheeler, before taking over the agency, had been an EPA employee and also a lobbyist for energy, oil and uranium processing companies.

“I would say that the Obama administration only focused on climate change and not on the nuts and bolts of what the EPA is supposed to be doing,” Wheeler said. “And we’ve been doing all of it at the same time.”

Earth is on course by 2050 to be about 3 degrees Celsius warmer compared to pre-industrial times. The increase will wipe out some species, place more homes in floodplains and mean longer, more intense heat waves. There’s a race to stop carbon dioxide emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and fuel conditions for climate change.

Even with steadily dropping emissions levels in the U.S. over decades, carbon dioxide remains in the earth’s atmosphere for up to 1,000 years, according to NASA.

At the same time, EPA’s authority has become restricted and limited for the first time in decades since landmark environmental laws were enacted, according to more than a dozen experts and former EPA staff members interviewed for this story.

With the rule changes, the “interruption of progress represents a loss of time that will never be recovered,” Goffman said. “Time is of the essence, in terms of dealing with climate change.”

A rule to keep coal-fired plants running

For more than 100 years, coal-fired power plants have emitted carbon dioxide that contributed to climate change. Rather than reducing those emissions, the EPA under Trump implemented the Affordable Clean Energy Rule – or ACE – requiring plants to operate more efficiently.

Critics say that’s the wrong move. 

If the plants run more efficiently, the operators make upgrades and keep them operating longer, experts said. The EPA’s own data modeling shows that this leads to emissions increases, Harvard’s Fallon Lambert said. 

“Our primary takeaway is that it does little to nothing to address carbon pollution,” she said. ”And in many states, you could see an emissions rebound.”

Charles Driscoll, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University, who is also part of the Clean Energy Futures project, agreed.

“ACE incentivizes the continuation of coal. So it doesn’t do much in terms of carbon dioxide. It doesn’t do much for sulfur dioxide,” he said.

The rule went into effect in June 2019 and took the place of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce emissions by about 32% from 2005 levels by 2030 but never took effect due to court challenges. It would have provided utilities with incentives to use renewables and low-emitting fuels more and use high-emitting fuels, like coal, less. 

Even without strict reduction standards, carbon dioxide emissions continue to drop, the EPA’s Wheeler said. 

“The prior administration, they focused almost solely on climate change at the expense of the other responsibilities of the EPA,” he said. “What they tried to do is virtue signal to foreign capitals, such as Paris, instead of focusing on something that is legally sustainable here in the United States.”

The Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, which is working to reduce greenhouse gases, saying it placed an unfair economic burden on America.

Wheeler said he believes the courts will uphold the ACE rule and that it ultimately will reduce carbon emissions. “The trajectory of CO2 emissions in this country is going down. And it’s going down each year, and it will continue to go down.”

But it would drop little compared to the researchers’ clean energy model. Nationally under that plan, carbon dioxide emissions from energy generation would plummet 36% by 2030. They would drop 70% by 2035 before hitting 100% – zero emissions – in 2040.

Activists: It’s profits over people

About 30 miles northeast of Cleveland, in Ohio, Painesville’s power plant burns coal only when energy use peaks and the market price soars, keeping usage to a minimum, a city spokeswoman told the USA TODAY Network.

Its annual CO2 emissions fluctuated over the decade, reaching as high as about 122,000 tons in 2011 and dipping as low as to about 6,300 tons in 2018, EPA records show.

Those outputs seem small in comparison to the limits allowed by the Trump rule – more than 265,000 tons annually by 2025, according to EPA models.

A community of mostly Latino and Black residents living adjacent to the plant may be paying the price with their health. Since 1990, an average of 135 Ohio residents die annually from asthma, according to Ohio Department of Health.

There’s a recreation center, outdoor basketball court and playground next to the coal-fired facility, which originally opened in 1888. The playground attracts children who play near the plant and breathe in emissions.

“We always played there. We never really paid attention to it. We lived in this area most of our life,” said Juan Jacquin, 18, whose family moved a couple of blocks closer to the plant in recent months. The odor is noticeably stronger when it runs, he said.

Across Lake Erie from Painesville, in Michigan, portions of a heavily industrialized area in and around Detroit have failed for years to meet EPA air quality standards for sulfur dioxide.

Under Trump policies, EPA’s own projections show sulfur dioxide emissions will increase in Michigan by more than 35% over the next five years. 

That disproportionally affects lower-income residents and people of color, many of whom live in neighborhoods in close proximity to a large oil refinery, steel and auto plants or other factories.

In Wayne County, which includes Detroit, childhood asthma hospitalization rates are more than 62% higher than the statewide average. In 2017, the mortality rate from asthma among white Michigan residents was 7 deaths per 1 million; for Black residents it was nearly three times higher – 26 per 1 million. 

“It is obvious profits over people is the top agenda item,” said Delores Leonard, a retired educator turned environmental activist in one of Detroit’s most industrialized, most polluted areas. 

The EPA predicts CO2 emissions will increase in Michigan by almost 15% over the next decade, at a time when the Great Lakes region is warming faster than the rest of the contiguous U.S., according to scientists.

A clean energy model, similar to what Biden is touting, shows Michigan emitting 13.9 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide and 10,000 fewer tons of sulfur dioxide in 2035 compared to the ACE rule. 

“It’s so upsetting,” said Alyson Melnik, 25, a resident of the factory-lined Detroit suburb of Dearborn. “The EPA no longer stands for anything that protects the environment.” 

It’s not unusual for communities of color to be located near polluting facilities in what environmentalists call “sacrifice zones.”

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of climate health and the global environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a pediatric hospitalist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said air pollution in the United States disproportionately affects minorities. 

Black and Latino communities are exposed to, “in some studies, 20%, maybe 60% more air pollution,” he said at a recent conference. Yet ”they produce less. They’re responsible for less. Their behaviors in our society actually consume less goods and services and energy. They’re producing the least and are exposed to the most.”

Nationally, 1 in 5 children who have asthma may have developed it from breathing polluted air, Bernstein said. 

“I’ve seen more children not be able to breathe in my lifetime than I would like to see in anyone else’s,” he said. “The mother does not care about climate change. She couldn’t give a hoot about what’s going to happen to the planet in 50 years. She wants to know if her child is going to suffocate in front of me.”

Wheeler said the EPA wants to improve environmental quality, “so that we can try to bring down the asthma rates in children. I was a child asthmatic. I think it’s very important to be working on the max attainment.”

When asked if more stringent standards would be needed to improve air quality, he said, “The answer isn’t always just to go to more stringent standards until you get everybody to comply with the existing standards that we have.”

Wheeler said air pollution is down during Trump’s term in office, but according to an Associated Press analysis last year, federal data showed the nation had more polluted air days than just a few years earlier.

Under a clean energy model, estimates similar to what the Biden campaign is promoting, Ohio would emit 62.4 million tons less of carbon dioxide by 2035 compared to the ACE rule and nearly 71,000 fewer tons of sulfur dioxide would also no longer enter the air, according to the model.

Market-based solutions

Many coal-fired plants will likely continue shuttering and dropping off the EPA’s regulatory list. There has been a decline in coal-powered sources because of market forces – in particular, lower priced natural gas. 

American Electric Power closed a coal fired power plant in Conesville, Ohio, in May, two years ahead of schedule.

In October, Texas-based Vistra Corp., the company that owns the William H. Zimmer Power Station in Moscow, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati, announced plans to close the plant in 2027 along with other plants across the Midwest.

Michigan’s two largest energy utilities, Consumers Energy and DTE, in recent months announced plans to accelerate the closure of several coal-fired power plants.

Consumers Energy wants to end coal-fired power generation and reduce carbon emissions by more than 90% by 2040. DTE said it will close 11 of its 17 plants in Michigan – including three in the Detroit area – by 2023, and achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century.

Coupled with market forces and more consumer support for renewable energy, the private sector is decarbonizing on its own. But that is “not a substitute for government action,” said Michael Vandenbergh, a Vanderbilt University professor who is director of the Climate Change Research Network.

“I think after (the election) if we get a Biden administration,” Vandenbergh said, ”then what we will find is that these corporate commitments will have paved the way for government action, and will provide a gap-filling or complementary role, if we get major legislation or a new regulatory program.”

Legal implications of rollbacks

Trump’s policies on the environment and climate have elicited stiff resistance from conservation groups and Democrats. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than California, where Attorney General Xavier Becerra led the opposition’s legal onslaught. 

By mid-October, California was part of coalitions that had launched 106 lawsuits against the Trump administration, 56 of which specifically took on environmental issues.

This deluge of litigation is aimed to stop rollbacks or halt the promulgation of new, weaker regulations under the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Power Plan, the Endangered Species Act and others. 

“Donald Trump’s three worst enemies are the facts, the law and the science,” Becerra said. 

If Biden is elected, many of those 56 lawsuits could become moot. Becerra said he could not think of any environmental policy stance the Trump administration had taken that a hypothetical Biden administration would likely defend. 

“A new administration could obviously change their position in litigation, and it’s not uncommon that that happens,” said Mike Landis, an attorney representing advocacy groups including the Public Interest Network and Environment America.

But the process of getting environmental laws to where they were in 2016 is more complicated and hinges on factors ranging from when the Trump administration unveiled a new policy to what the regulation does. 

For example, a Biden administration could stop defending the ACE rule, which California is challenging in court. But it would be a separate matter to reinstitute the Clean Power Plan after it was repealed in June 2019. 

“It wouldn’t be as simple as rolling back the rollback,” Landis said.

First, the Biden administration would have to build back the the EPA’s gutted staff and fix its budget, said Betsy Southerland, former director of Science and Technology at the EPA Office of Water.

“They’re not going to just put things back the way they were in 2016,” she said. “They want to initiate aggressive new action on climate change and environmental justice. So no question, this new administration is going to be faced with a massive workload.”

Erasing protections for waterways in the West

Perhaps the rule with the largest implications across states are the revisions to the Clean Water Act.

In 2015, the Obama administration expanded the federal government’s authority to regulate wetlands and washes when it adopted the regulation called the Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS.

By scrapping that rule and adopting its new Navigable Waters Protection Rule, the administration dramatically narrowed the definition of streams and wetlands that fall under federal regulation. Omitted were ephemeral streams that flow seasonally, select intermittent streams that flow after heavy rainfall and wetlands that are not adjacent to bodies of water. 

“Almost every single state has their own protections on waterways,” the EPA’s Wheeler said. “So even if it’s not a federal waterway, it doesn’t mean it’s not protected by the states.”

The administration’s changes to the waters rule leaves 18% of streams and 51% of wetlands unprotected, according to an EPA staff analysis that used data from the U.S. Geological Survey’s national hydrography database.

The data was not publicized when changes to the rule were proposed. The staff analysis became public after an open records request, Southerland said.

In other parts of the country, like the arid West, the rates of unprotected waterways are closer to 80% or 90%, Southerland said.

When asked about the percentages of waterways across the country left unprotected, Wheeler questioned the figures.

“We’ve never completely mapped all the waterways,” Wheeler said. “It’s just something that can’t be quantified at this point in time. … We are mapping waters across the country, but it had never been done before for regulatory purposes. So the numbers are just estimates.”

California has already sued the EPA over the change and states are reporting a loss of protections, in some cases, of most of their waterways.

“The Clean Water Act is a strong law. It’s withstood the test of time, and it’s been protecting our waters for 40 years, and now it’s not,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Arizona chapter.

In Arizona, the Obama-era rule would have made “every wash in the state of Arizona jurisdictional because under that rule, you were categorically jurisdictional if you had a bed, bank and a high watermark,” said Cynthia Campbell, Water Resources Management Advisor for the city of Phoenix.

“But the problem is that if you’ve ever been to Arizona, if you’ve ever seen our landscape, our landscape is covered with washes and alluvial flows off of our mountain ranges, that can be very small or very large,” she said. 

Trying to sort out whether washes are ephemeral or intermittent will be difficult, Campbell said, ”because we’re in a 20-year drought.”

The new rule could have the effect of eliminating 85% to 90% of Arizona’s waterways, she said.

If the state doesn’t fill in the space left by the federal pullback, developers and mining companies wouldn’t need to apply for certain permits in the future, in one instance potentially easing the way for developers who plan to build huge housing developments near the imperiled San Pedro River.

After the change, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality began holding a series of meetings on how to fill the gaps with new state regulations.

Water woes in New England

The effects of the new water rule will also be felt in the Northeast, said Heather Govern, vice president and director of the clean air and water program of Conservation Law Foundation. She sees the rule as another battle in the war between environmentalists and those defending industrial interests. 

In Massachusetts, an aerial survey in 2000 found 30,000 potential vernal pools, ephemeral wetlands that are dry most of the year and only appear with spring rains. Those pools burst with life, much of it tied exclusively to these small shallow pools and are a vital part of the forest food web.

In Massachusetts and New England, the Trump move was welcomed by developers, Govern said.

“Anyone building on land abutting wetlands or streams or wanting to build on wetlands and streams (benefitted),” Govern said.

Hundreds of scientists conducted over 1,000 research projects to form the scientific basis of the 2015 Clean Water Rule, said Curtis Spalding, a Brown University professor and a former EPA regional administrator. Previously, the burden was on the developer to show that a wetland had no connection to or impact on navigable waters.

“Larger projects tend to have some political support,” he said. “State legislators, under the mistaken idea that somehow it is good for the economy to lose wetlands and compromise water quality will support them for short term gain, but a long term loss.”

Massachusetts Audubon and Conservation Law Foundation joined six other plaintiffs in suing the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April over the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, which the suit called an unreasonably narrow interpretation of the Clean Water Act.

It’s hard enough to keep development from occurring in a wetland that is invisible for all but a few months of the year, but removing Clean Water Act protections made the job much harder, Govern said. Over the past couple of decades the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has suffered cutbacks to staffing.

“It’s a matter of resources,” said Govern. Even though Massachusetts has strong clean water laws of its own, there are streams and water bodies that have traditionally fallen under federal protection. Without that protection, “it falls back onto the state.”

The case for water: a life force

A mile of stream winds through part of Donna Schwab’s 55-acre property in North Lewisburg, Ohio, located nearly 40 miles northwest of Columbus.

Farmers channeled parts of the stream into a straight ditch decades ago. It’s slowly recovering, beginning to wind through portions of the property.

“It was a question of whether it would be covered by the ephemeral streams of the WOTUS rule,” said Anthony Sasson, a research associate at Midwest Biodiversity Institute, which monitors aquatic resources across Ohio and the Midwest.

Biologists found the stream has value. Trees line the banks, providing shade again. Fish swim in pools along sections of the stream while the creek bed dries out in other portions. But the water, and life with it, exist just below the surface.

The stream, and how it’s defined, has now become a political and environmental issue under the revised WOTUS rule. 

In Ohio, there are an estimated 36,000 miles of ephemeral streams like Schwab’s unnamed one that are not protected under the Trump administration’s rule.

Ohio EPA has since moved to cover ephemeral streams and Sasson said the state’s rule was an improvement over the federal rule.

In Ohio, there are an estimated 36,000 miles of ephemeral streams which are not protected under the Trump administration’s interpretation of the law.

Critics of the regulations, including developers and coal mine operators, argue that some of the streams are so small that a person can jump from bank to bank or don’t have water in them all year. They contend the streams aren’t worth protecting and only impede farm operations and other economic development.

“(It has) very little effect on water quality and we don’t feel we should have to deal with it,” said Mike Cope, president of the Ohio Coal Association.

For decades, Ohio EPA sent teams of biologists out to water basins throughout the state to take a census of the wildlife. Certain fish and bugs cannot exist when pollution is present. The wildlife assessment allows biologists to take the pulse of the stream and measure its health.

The tributaries, although small, feed into larger bodies of water.

“If you take a heart in a human body, it’s an important organ, right? But it can’t function alone without all the tributaries, the veins and blood vessels that bring the blood to and from it,” said Schwab who retired from work as a wildlife biologist from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Schwab’s stream has never been assessed by state biologists, but when an independent group from Midwest Biodiversity Institute came to sample water quality they found the conservation work paid off. There were 17 species of fish and 43 species of insects.

Conservation experts say everything is connected. Wetlands and streams provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife and act to curb floods and erosion said Mažeika Sullivan, director of the Schiermeier Olentangy River Wetland Research Park at Ohio State University.

“But they also provide natural products for human use,” he said, “drinking water is the most important among them.” 

There are already examples that can illustrate the potential damage.

“One of the most well known examples of connectivity, and across broad spatial scales is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. This is largely attributed to nitrogen and phosphorus coming from fertilizer runoff from Midwestern fields, enters smaller streams,” Sullivan said.

“They make their way to larger streams, they make their way to the Mississippi River, and then eventually down into the Gulf of Mexico, hundreds of miles away, right? This has led to harmful algal blooms, biological deserts. And this is a great example of how these cumulative changes across broad spatial scales can affect downstream water quality.”

Schwab remains hopeful.

“Maybe more people become aware. And then they do their civic duty and vote and talk to their leaders. Then maybe things get changed better down the road,” she said. ”It still comes down to water quality and the water we drink. We all live down stream, right?”

USA TODAY Network reporters Keith Matheny of The Detroit Free Press; Mark Olalde of The Desert Sun; Doug Fraser of The Cape Cod Times; and Ian James and Erin Stone of The Arizona Republic contributed to this story.


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