Under President Donald Trump, the federal government has rushed into a deregulation push unlike anything longtime environmental advocates say they have ever seen.
The changes, including rollbacks to landmark rules on issues such as clean air and endangered species, go beyond familiar partisan seesawing between Republican and Democratic leadership.
“On some level, the administration .... see(s) this as perhaps a generational opportunity to remake what the federal role in environmental protection is about,” said James McElfish, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute.
To his supporters, the president is fulfilling a promise to speed up permitting and eliminate red tape that adds expenses to businesses, from auto manufacturers to oil companies. Critics say the approach is one plank of a broader assault on science.
The environment is an easy proxy for some things Trump says he stands against: the regulatory state, derided as an impediment to the economy, and perceived liberal sensitivity, which is out of step with the president’s vision of American exceptionalism.
“It’s just industry good, environmentalism bad,” said Jessica Owley, director of the environmental law program at the University of Miami.
Officials under Trump say they are focused on basics, what Doug Benevento, deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, deemed the blocking and tackling of oversight. They note that as of March, the agency had pushed to get Florida into line with air quality standards. They say they have also worked on some of the worst pollution, targeting Superfund sites, though other reporting has questioned their effectiveness and pointed out that the president proposed budget cuts to the program.
“I’m willing to argue this as a fact that I think the Trump administration has done more to accomplish the mission of the agency than any administration before it,” Benevento said.
What does that mean for Florida? When Trump, upon extending a moratorium blocking new offshore oil drilling near the state recently celebrated himself as “'the No. 1 environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt,” environmentalists scoffed and accused him of green-washing, or glossing over, a poor record.
Sorting out just how much this means on the ground locally is not as easy as it seems, even as advocates spotlight a handful of policies they say could have the biggest effects. A number of rules are still being implemented while others are subject to court challenges; the administration has lost multiple legal decisions, a sign of the haste with which it has scrambled to upend existing regulations.
“All these things take time to work out,” McElfish said. “Particularly in the environment.”
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 instructs agencies to think before they act. The law, foundational for the environmental movement, triggers reviews for certain permit decisions, land management policies and highway or building projects.
Those reviews take time, adding months or years and costs to construction. Under Trump, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees the policy, has tried to scale back the process. That has drawn lawsuits.
Activists acknowledge the process could be sped up, but they oppose limiting the scope of studies. The Act does not require agencies to take the least environmentally harmful path, only to study the consequences.
Particularly worrisome for Florida, environmental lawyers say, is a cut to studying “cumulative impacts." That provision deals with how the effects of projects stack up, creating more harm together than they would on their own. Think of widening a road near a recent development. The road-widening alone may not imperil too much wildlife habitat, but in conjunction with the development, it does.
The Act further provides a chance for the public to comment, important especially for disenfranchised communities typically most harmed by pollution and highway construction.
“When you streamline permitting and fast-track the kind of operations that often disproportionately affect poor people and people of color, fast-tracking is nothing more than a quick trip to the hospital or the cemetery for front-line communities,” said Robert Bullard, an environmental justice leader and professor at Texas Southern University.
Recently, Florida advocates invoked the National Environmental Policy Act in a legal challenge over road building they say would threaten Florida panthers. They offer an older example as a reason for why the government should thoroughly consider science: Engineers decades ago rerouted the Kissimmee River, worsening water quality in a move they later had to partially undo at great expense.
“You don’t want to take action that’s going to cause you to basically throw away money,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida political director for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.
Few places are more susceptible to the changing climate than Florida, a flat peninsula with development clustered on the shore. Tidal data show the sea is rising. The hottest days are expected to become more common, placing a special burden on those — often people of color — who labor outside, like migrant farm workers, construction workers and garbage handlers.
Trump soon after taking office announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, a global compact committing to targets for reducing carbon emissions. Regulators have lowered fuel economy targets for automakers and loosened mandates for oil and gas suppliers to tamp down on methane leaks.
“We’re just continuing to lock in more warming over time, every day that we emit as many emissions as we are right now,” said Caitlin McCoy, a staff lawyer who tracks rollbacks for the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard University.
The effects of these moves are impossible to fully measure in real time, but scientists and environmentalists say they will lead to a more difficult future. Projections show the state is likely to lose coastline and see a drop in property values near places such as Miami.
“We’ve lost several years we didn’t have,” said Michael Gerrard, founder of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that he gets “beat up on climate,” but that “Congress has never actually given EPA specific legislation or statute to address climate change.”
“So we’re using existing powers that we have to address climate and greenhouse gases,” said Wheeler, who used to be a coal lobbyist.
On cars, he said, the administration lowered emissions targets but maintained some goals for automakers that he deemed more realistic. Not every major car company supported the move. He dismissed Obama’s policies as a “virtue signal to foreign capitals such as Paris" and said the previous White House pushed the boundaries of existing law.
“We’re putting in place regulations that actually follow the law and that will remain in place,” Wheeler said.
Shi-Ling Hsu, an environmental law professor at Florida State University, said climate change was an issue well before Trump and “a lot of good things have to happen to save South Florida from sea level rise.
“Donald Trump’s absence from office is only one of them.”
Florida is home to more endangered or threatened species than all but three states, from the sand skink to panthers and manatees.
The Trump administration, nature advocates say, has weakened protections of the Endangered Species Act. They cite policies, some pending or tied up in legal battles, that slow the process of granting protections to newly threatened species and diminish the consideration of climate change in making determinations. The government has looked to narrow its designation of critical habitats for protection, they say, and put weight on the economic consequences of listing new species.
In a separate move, the administration stripped penalties when oil and gas companies mistakenly kill migratory birds, which fly and rest along the Gulf Coast. That rule is subject to a court case, though a judge recently decided against Trump’s government.
The Trump administration has shifted how the government classifies, and regulates, certain wetlands under the Clean Water Act, threatening to leave some areas with less protection. Wide swaths of Florida’s wetlands have already been filled or degraded.
Uncertainty hovers around precisely how regulators will define the measure and how many acres of wetlands will be affected. At first glance, attorneys said, the provisions seem to most affect areas where melting snow and heavy rains temporarily flood creeks and streams each year.
“It has a more profound apparent impact on the West Coast, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its impacts for Florida,” said Lopez, of the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. The Center, in one rough assessment, estimated at least 116 miles of streams could be affected in Florida, she said, while thousands more would continue to be protected.
Without strict oversight, critics say, the changes would allow businesses and developers to more easily send waste into or fill small tributaries that dump out to bigger bodies of water. The rule is subject to multiple legal challenges.
If he wins the election, Trump is likely to advance deregulation, and the administration will defend its positions in court. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins, environmental lawyers say, he could issue orders to undo Trump’s efforts and abandon pending cases. Many changes in the last four years were not acts of Congress signed by Trump, but his own executive actions that would be easier to overturn.
Biden has the equivalent of a B grade for his votes on the environment while in Congress, according to the League of Conservation Voters. He has made curbing emissions a prong of his campaign.
Advocates point out that no administration sides with all of their causes. Obama and Biden, for instance, backed fracking, a method of extracting natural gas that many activists oppose. Biden now says he wants the country to reach net-zero carbon emissions within decades, but he argues natural gas is necessary to transition to more renewable energy.
“It’s not like we went from light into darkness,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “Other administrations have pushed fossil fuel use, have not been great at protecting endangered species, have allowed development.”
Trump has just gone further. “The environment, or hostility to environmental regulations, has become a kind of identity politics,” Schwartz said.
Correction: An estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey shows Florida has a little more than one-tenth of America’s wetlands, not including Alaska or Hawaii. An earlier version of this story gave a disputed figure.