New analysis shows sharp decline in environmental enforcement under Trump

A new report from the Environmental Integrity Project charts how EPA enforcement has fallen in the Trump era.

President Donald Trump. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Donald Trump. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

When President Donald Trump took office in January, environmentalists feared his industry-friendly approach to environmental policy would usher in an era of lax environmental enforcement. That concern only grew with the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency; Pruitt has said that he wants to hand off enforcement to the states and potentially eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA).

Now, a new analysis from the Environmental Integrity Project provides the data to validate those concerns. Looking at the total number of environmental enforcement cases brought by the Trump administration from January through the end of July, compared to the beginning of the past three presidential administrations, the analysis found that environmental enforcement under Trump is less frequent — and far less harsh — than previous administrations. In total, the Trump administration has collected 60 percent less in civil penalties from polluters than the past three administrations over the same period of time.

“This is the weakest start that any of us have seen, going back 25 years,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of civil enforcement at EPA, said on a press call on Thursday.

As of July 31, the Trump Department of Justice had lodged 26 civil complaints against polluters on behalf of the EPA. That number is lower than the Obama administration, which had lodged 34 complaints over the same period of time, and much lower than the Clinton administration, which had lodged 45 complaints. Even the administration of George W. Bush — widely viewed as friendly to oil, gas, and industry — had lodged 31 civil complaints as of July 31 during its first year. The civil complaints include violations of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, but do not include Superfund violations.

Moreover, the analysis found that the amount collected from the civil complaints has been significantly lower under the Trump administration than the previous three administrations. For instance, under the first few months of the Obama administration, around $36 million had been collected in penalties. Under the Trump administration, only $12 million has been collected.

While the Environmental Integrity Project numbers reported are significant, they very likely understate the overall impact of what is going on, because of the key role that deterrence plays in our system,” Bruce Buckheit, former director of EPA’s Air Enforcement Division, said on a press call. “Until this January, the EPA attempted to deter violations by maintaining a brave front and assuring that the cop was still on the beat.”

The report also looked at the largest civil penalty imposed during the first few months of each administration. For the Trump administration, that was a $2.5 million penalty levied against a Houston area chemical storage facility, for failing to comply with Clean Air Act standards. Under the Obama administration, the largest civil penalty imposed in the administration’s first few months was a $12 million fine, which the administration levied against BP Texas City, the owner of the third largest oil refinery in the U.S.

Trump’s Department of Justice has also decided to end the practice of working with third-party organizations to help mitigate environmental pollution from violations of environmental laws, something that the Obama administration would occasionally pursue. In late July, for instance, the Department of Justice dropped a $3 million penalty imposed by the Obama administration on the motorcycle company Harley-Davidson, which was to be paid to an American Lung Association project that replaced conventional woodstoves with cleaner burning stoves in vulnerable communities.

Environmental Integrity Project’s Schaeffer suggested that the drop in enforcement is largely a reflection of a change in agency priority under Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has placed a much larger focus on rolling back environmental regulations than bringing enforcement actions against polluters. In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, agencies like the EPA and the Department of the Interior have begun rolling back 23 different environmental regulations, from the Clean Power Plan to a rule regulating the emission of methane on public lands from oil and gas operations.

Schaeffer also pointed to the appointment of various political allies with close ties to polluting industries. Trump has received criticism from environmental groups, for instance, over his nomination of D.C.-based lawyer Jeffrey B. Clark to serve as the assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, the department’s top environmental prosecutor. Clark represented fossil fuel giant BP following the company’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill; his firm’s website boasts that Clark successfully defended the company against “a multibillion-dollar appeal brought by 11 Louisiana parishes.”

The EPA’s enforcement office is also facing sharp cuts under the Trump administration’s proposed budget, which asks for a 23 percent cut to environmental enforcement within the agency. The House proposed budget has tempered that slightly, asking for a 15 percent cut, though former EPA officials still consider those cuts to be too high for such a central part of the agency.

When it comes to enforcement, the Pruitt administration is off to an anemic start, and I’m concerned that this is only going to get worse,” Judith Enck, former regional administrator for EPA Region 2 under the Obama administration, said on a press call. “We know that he does not grasp the science of climate change, but this report now illustrates that Scott Pruitt is unwilling or unable to carry out the basic statutory mission of the EPA, which is enforcement of our environmental laws.”