Donald Trump is using the dying embers of his US presidency to hastily push through a procession of environmental protection rollbacks that critics claim will cement his legacy as an unusually destructive force against the natural world.
Trump has yet to acknowledge his election loss to president-elect Joe Biden but his administration has been busily finishing off a cavalcade of regulatory moves to lock in more oil and gas drilling, loosened protections for wildlife and lax air pollution standards before the Democrat enters the White House on 20 January.
Trump’s interior department is hastily auctioning off drilling rights to America’s last large untouched wilderness, the sprawling Arctic National Wildlife Refuge found in the tundra of northern Alaska. The refuge, home to polar bears, caribou and 200 species of birds, has been off limits to fossil fuel companies for decades but the Trump administration is keen to give out leases to extract the billions of barrels of oil believed to be in the area’s coastal region.
The leases could result in the release of vast quantities of carbon emissions as well as upend the long-held lifestyle of the local Gwich’in tribe, which depends upon the migratory caribou for sustenance. Several major banks, fiercely lobbied by the Gwich’in and conservationists, have refused to finance drilling in the refuge but industry groups have expressed optimism that the area will be carved open.
The administration is also opening the way for drilling around the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, considered a sacred area by the native Navajo and Pueblo people who live near the New Mexico site and has targeted a linchpin environmental law, known as the National Environmental Policy Act, to allow more logging and road-building in national forests.
Trump has previously shrunk federally-protected areas as part of an “energy dominance” mantra that the president claims will bolster the US economy.
Meanwhile, safety rules for offshore drilling, put in place after the disastrous 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are being watered down. The risks of a catastrophic, unrestrained spill are highest in the Arctic, where retreating sea ice is encouraging some fossil fuel firms to move into a region largely devoid of clean-up and rescue infrastructure.
The Trump administration is is also maintaining air quality standards widely condemned by experts as being insufficient to protect communities from sooty pollution that comes from cars, trucks and heavy industry. Many cities in the US are riven with environmental injustices, where poorer communities of color are routinely placed in proximity of industrial plants, highways and other sources of pollution.
The regulatory rampage extends to creatures from the skies to the prairies to the oceans – fines for people who kill migratory birds are being reviewed while the US Navy has been given latitude to inadvertently harass endangered whales with noise from explosions and speeding vessels during war game exercises along the west coast.
A plan to slash protections for sage grouse across the US west has been finalized, placing the habitat of the once-common bird, about the size of a chicken and known for its flamboyant mating dances, at risk. “These guys are hellbent on turning over the last refuges of the vanishing greater sage grouse to drilling, mining and grazing,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s disgusting, transparent and illegal.”
The actions of the exiting administration will have “extremely damaging environmental consequences”, said Richard Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University. “Trump’s counterproductive actions have allowed the climate crisis to intensify and put the health of many Americans, especially in the most vulnerable communities, at risk by ignoring threats from pollution,” he added.
The scorched earth approach of Trump’s final months will further exacerbate a four-year legacy where climate policies have been dismantled, clean air and water rules scaled back and legions of demoralized federal government scientists sidelined or decided to quit.
“The Trump administration spent four years assaulting every protection for our air, water, lands, wildlife and climate,” said Jill Tauber, vice-president of litigation at Earthjustice, a non-profit law organization.
Leah Donahey, legislative director at the Alaska Wilderness League, added: “No administration has been worse for our environment or our nation’s public health than this one.”
Biden will be able to reverse some of Trump’s actions and has vowed to limit drilling on federal land as well as to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, which the incumbent has removed the US from. Biden has called the climate change an “existential threat” in the wake of a year of fierce wildfires in California and a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic, but his ambition to pass sweeping climate legislation hinge upon a US senate that, with looming special elections in the state of Georgia, appears likely to remain in Republican control.
Any successful remediation of the rollbacks will also have to survive as flurry of lawsuits, with the US supreme court now titled decisively in a conservative direction. All of this will soak up time during a period where scientists say planet-heating emissions must be cut rapidly to avoid the worst ravages of the climate crisis. “Trump’s legacy on environmental issues will be less about lasting policy changes,” said Revesz, “and more about lost time and missed opportunities.”