7 things to watch in 2019 as Trump goes to war with Democrats over the environment

Buckle up, folks, it's going to be a long one.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. CREDIT: Sylvain CORDIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. CREDIT: Sylvain CORDIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Next year will see a dramatic acceleration in environmental regulation rollbacks, as a number of Trump administration proposals gain traction and take effect, with fossil fuel restrictions, public health, and scientific studies all set to be impacted.

There has already been an onslaught of environmental regulatory rollbacks so vast it can be hard to keep track of those coming down the pipeline. But 2019 will also usher in a resounding Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, one that will likely be far less receptive to President Donald Trump’s efforts to unravel Obama-era climate and environmental policies.

That means activities at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Interior Department will be under increased scrutiny, as will the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other key policy players.

“What we face with the Trump administration is wholesale capture of our environmental agencies by the industries those agencies police — corruption in plain view,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told ThinkProgress over email.


Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers have indicated they will be casting a wide net in the new year, keeping an eye on a broad and expansive list of issues targeted by the Trump administration. Here are a few key areas to watch in the new year.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund

There has traditionally been longstanding bipartisan support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). But this year has seen a political fight over re-funding it — and that’s likely to continue into the new year.

The fund takes royalties from offshore fossil fuel drilling and uses them to pay for national conservation and related efforts, including parks and playgrounds. But the fund expired in September and congressional fighting has prevented its renewal, much to the consternation of advocacy groups, along with many lawmakers.

End-of-year funding didn’t bring any relief, either, with Republicans failing this week to include the LWCF in their final 2018 legislation after Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) torpedoed efforts to save the fund.


Next year looks to be a bit different, though. Incoming House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) said Thursday that a vote on LWCF reauthorization will be a priority.

Democrats made a number of concessions on things like protections for endangered species in their failed efforts to revive the LWCF this year. In 2019, such compromises are less likely, something Lee’s colleagues noted themselves on Thursday.

Offshore drilling

Oil and gas exploration and drilling has been among the most controversial of the Trump administration’s goals. Under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who will resign at the end of the year, the government has pushed to open up virtually all federal waters to drilling. That move has seen virtually unanimous bipartisan opposition. It was initially opposed by all but one East Coast governor, Maine’s Paul LePage (R), but he has now been replaced by an offshore drilling opponent. All West Coast governors are in opposition to drilling as well.

The outcry resulted in Florida being granted a mysterious exception by Zinke, something other states have angrily pointed to in asking for their own exemptions. New Jersey has sought documents from the Interior Department over that move and said Thursday that the information is now being turned over.

Also Thursday, nine states sued to stop future Atlantic seismic testing for oil, expressing concern over the harm to whales and dolphins. New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia are all involved in the suit.


That tension is only going to grow, with the five-year leasing plan stretching from 2019 to 2024 and proposing the opening of some 90 percent of U.S. offshore areas to drilling. A number of coastal states are also seeking to ban drilling in their waters, in response to the Trump administration.

National parks and monuments

In a move resoundingly condemned by conservation advocates, the Trump administration used the Antiquities Act to enact the largest reduction of public lands in U.S. history in 2017, shrinking both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah.

That decision will be a central point of focus next year when Grijalva takes the reigns of the Natural Resources Committee. The Arizona Democrat told ThinkProgress in November that he plans to look closely at the Trump administration’s decision to shrink the Utah areas. Scrutiny will likely fall on stakeholders who stood to benefit from the decision, including fossil fuel companies and one Utah Republican with ties to Trump.

Advocates are optimistic that such heightened oversight will be a boon for the environment.

“The Trump administration has spent two years trying to attack nearly every clean air, water and climate safeguard on the books, but they’ve run into a wall of resistance from the American people and the courts,” John Coequyt, global climate policy director for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress this week.

With “more climate champions in the House” come 2019, Coequyt said, that wall is only set to strengthen. Environmental groups have indicated they hope the shrinking will be deemed illegal and that other spaces will be protected in future.

Arctic drilling

Drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been off the table for years, with environmental activists and indigenous tribes strongly opposed. But efforts to open up the ecologically sensitive area to fossil fuel interests have ramped up under the Trump administration: a year ago, Republicans in Congress approved lease sales for drilling in the area through a sweeping tax bill.

Then, on December 20, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its draft plan to open up ANWR to drilling, with public comments opening December 28 and accepted through February 11. Joe Balash, an assistant secretary for the Interior Department, told reporters on Wednesday that the first lease sale in the area is planned for 2019.

This decision comes despite significant pushback from politicians on both sides of the aisle and local communities.

While some indigenous residents of the area, including Inupiat, have been supportive of drilling for economic reasons, the Gwich’in tribe rely on the herd of porcupine caribou in ANWR’s Area 1002 for their survival. They say drilling would impact the herd and by extension destroy their way of life. But next year will see the Trump administration moving forward with its plans.

Such actions won’t proceed without resistance. In a letter sent Thursday to Zinke, several House Republicans discouraged against rushing towards oil and gas exploration in the area. The lawmakers expressed “serious concerns” with the process and pleaded for “a more careful review” of the issue.

Those Republicans are largely outgoing, but their stance is more widely shared among incoming Democrats. Last week, Democratic lawmakers joined a press conference led by indigenous opponents of drilling. Speaking outside the Capitol building, incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) pledged that Democrats would honor their “moral responsibility” to Native communities and that in 2019 they would fight the Trump administration’s drilling efforts in ANWR.

“I’m here as the majority leader… to say that we will remember,” he promised.

Bailing out failing coal plants

U.S. coal consumption is at its lowest rate in 40 years, but that hasn’t deterred the White House’s efforts to revive the dying industry — even though its own calculations show no new coal plants are being planned. In June, Trump instructed the Department of Energy (DOE) to look into bailing out both coal and nuclear plants at risk of retirement, despite no indicator of a looming electrical grid emergency.

Opposition to that proposal has run deep, but next year could change that. Bernard McNamee, the newest member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has historically supported fossil fuels and worked on Trump’s bailout proposal. FERC denied DOE’s proposal in January, but with McNamee on the commission opponents are concerned the bailout could be approved.

Environmental and science groups, including the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, have called on McNamee to recuse himself from the commission’s grid resilience cases based on his work history. But McNamee is unlikely to do so, just as the Trump administration is unlikely to abandon its efforts to save coal in 2019.

Mercury and pollution standards rollbacks

A leading source of concern for health and environmental experts is the imminent rollback of the Obama administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule. In October, the EPA announced that it would hobble the 2011 rule by heavily weighing the costs it poses to industries, like coal, while giving less weight to the impact of toxins on human health.

MATS has been associated with a decline in pollution and the improvement of public health, and experts are worried about the ramifications of weakening the rule, which could come in 2019 and prompt a full repeal later on.

That’s not the only rule in jeopardy though. A rollback on methane regulations is also in the works, as is an ongoing effort to ease fuel and auto efficiency standards, setting the administration on a collision course with California. Additionally, the government is attempting to replace the Clean Power Plan (CPP) with the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, which would hand a win to coal-fired power plants seeking less stringent greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

While those plans have all been announced, they are currently at various stages and seemingly set to further unfold and possibly go into effect in 2019.

There’s no question that rollbacks will continue under the Trump administration. But agencies like the EPA, which is behind many of the efforts, are meeting legal resistance from environmental and health groups across the country. And lawmakers have indicated they’ll be fighting too.

Blasting “polluter interests,” Sen. Whitehouse told ThinkProgress he and his colleagues would scrutinize “fraudulent climate denial” and the administration’s close ties with “fossil fuel polluters” in the new year.

“So our job is to fight back – on every front,” Whitehouse said.

The “secret science” rule

Before he left the EPA, former administrator Scott Pruitt threw his weight behind a deeply controversial effort widely panned by health and environmental experts. The so-called “secret science” rule would bar the agency from using studies with underlying data not broadly available to the public.

The inspiration for it came from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who for years has worked to limit the use of scientific data in policymaking, purportedly to make federal policy more transparent. His efforts never gained traction, largely because experts agree that data is private for many reasons, including violating patient confidentiality and allowing for distortion.

Pruitt embraced Smith’s crusade, however, over the objections of even his own agency staff. The EPA introduced the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” on April 30. By mid-October, the EPA had received around 600,000 comments on the proposal and appeared to have quietly put the plan on hold.

But that doesn’t mean the rule is gone. Science and environmental groups say they’re preparing themselves for the proposal to re-emerge in 2019. Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler also said last week that the agency will move to finalize the rule next year.

And the EPA isn’t the only source of so-called “secret science” concern. In September, now-outgoing Zinke oversaw the distribution of a “Promoting Open Science” order to his staff, laying out a less restricted version of the EPA’s rule.

Grijalva and other Democrats slammed that move and called on the department to cease such efforts. It is likely that any future movements towards enacting similar rules and orders will meet with resistance when Democrats take over the House.