Donald Trump in Des Moines, Iowa, in July 2023. Photo: Scott Morgan/Reuters
Donald Trump and his advisers have made campaign promises to throw away critical environmental regulations and boost the planet-warming fossil fuel sector.
Those plans include systematically dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal body with the most power to tackle the climate emergency and environmental justice, said a series of Trump advisers and allies. It’s a possible future that “terrifies” experts.
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“I think it would be catastrophic,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
During his first term in the White House, Trump successfully proposed cutting the EPA’s budget. Hundreds of scientists and other experts fled the agency as the administration rejected scientific findings and weakened environmental regulations.
The attacks on the agency could become even more intense during Trump’s second term, experts and insiders say.
“They will be better prepared to do things that will make a big difference,” said Jeff Holmstead, who headed the EPA’s air office during the Bush administration.
Trump’s first term was marked by ethics violations and scandals – something Holmstead blamed on inexperience. This time, Trump officials have more detailed plans, including a lengthy proposal to dismantle regulatory agencies, which Gerrard said would have cascading effects.
We would put more effort into all things fossil fuels
“You would see a brain drain because fewer young people will want to work there,” he said. “We would see much more effort on all things fossil fuels, and already the prospect of a second Trump administration is making clean energy investors nervous.”
In an interview with the Guardian, Mandy Gunasekara, Trump’s EPA chief of staff, criticized Biden’s EPA for perceived overreach. “In many ways this administration has used the EPA as a tool to make it harder for certain types of industries and technologies that they don’t like to operate,” she said. “Exhibit A is their disdain for fossil fuels.”
In Project 2025, presidency agenda put out by the Heritage Foundation and other conservative organizations, Gunasekara outlined ways to downsize the agency and shift it from its focus on the climate crisis.
Trump’s second EPA, Gunasekara said, would foster closer ties to the fossil fuel industry — a sector that scientists say must be phased out to avoid climate catastrophe — and reduce programs focused on justice and outreach. which is “not part of the core function or not. ‘not delivering the core mission’.
That means closing the Environmental Justice and Civil Rights office, which Biden launched last year. Gunasekara described the office as a “political arm of the EPA” that does not deliver tangible benefits. The offices of Public Engagement and Environmental Education, as well as International and Tribal Affairs, which she said could be replaced by the narrower Office of the American Indian, would be among the first to go.
Closing these offices would be “tyranny,” said Maria Lopez-Nunez, deputy director at the Newark, New Jersey Community Iron Corporation, a community environmental organization. “We don’t often have the political power on the front line to make agencies remember us.”
The EPA’s public engagement and justice-oriented offices, she said, are some of the most important resources for community organizers trying to keep their communities safe from pollution.
The Biden administration has made strides in promoting environmental justice, including a mandate that 40% of the benefits of certain investments flow to disadvantaged communities.
“I wish it had gone further, but at least it showed that frontline communities have a disproportionate amount of pollution. [but] don’t get the same percentage of funding,” Lopez-Nunez said. That program would likely disappear under a second Trump administration.
Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA), the Biden administration has allocated billions of dollars in grants over the coming years to communities hit hard by pollution and climate threats.
But if elected, Gunasekara said Trump should work with Congress to bring back those grant programs. “A lot of the IRA was just taking huge buckets of taxpayer dollars and donating them to the EPA with little oversight,” she said.
A second Trump administration would also roll back EPA regulations. A 2023 proposal to tighten carbon pollution standards for US coal and gas-fired power plants would be revisited, Trump allies say. So a 2023 proposal from the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would like to increase fuel efficiency requirements for new vehicles, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (Cafe) standards.
The final rule has become a key target of Trump, who has attacked the electric car subsidies from the Inflation Reduction Act and has repeatedly promised to repeal Biden’s “crazy electric vehicle mandate.”
“EVs have a place in the market but they are not going to replace traditional vehicles for many purposes,” said Myron Ebell, who led the EPA transition team before Trump’s first term. He said the Trump administration should not only reject Biden’s proposed strengthening of Cafe standards but also drop the existing standard.
A more conservative high court, which has some of the EPA’s ability to tackle water pollution and emissions from power plants, will help “push back against regulatory excess”, said Tom Pyle, head of the US transition team. The Department of Energy for Trump’s first term.
“But we’re not quite done,” he said. “The EV mandate needs to be completely revoked and the Café standards should be retained and revisited. This administration is moving way too fast than people are comfortable with this technology.”
Another change Gunasekara suggested: closing the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance and instead allowing individual program offices, such as the air program and the water program, to handle their own enforcement. It would be a way to combat the “unnecessary tension between the ruler and the ruled”, Gunasekara said.
When I think of the EPA … getting cozy with industry, it horrifies me
In practice, experts say this would lead to much less aggressive enforcement of pollution controls.
“When I think about the EPA … getting cozy with the industry, it horrifies me because I think about how many deaths there will be as a byproduct,” Lopez-Nunez said.
Lopez-Nunez has long criticized Biden’s EPA for not doing enough for the communities most affected by pollution and the climate crisis.
“But at least we were able to have a dialogue with him [the] EPA,” she said. “Under Trump there is no more of that.”