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New Report Looks at Trump Administration Impact on Environmental Law and Policy and What Lies Ahead

July 2020

(Washington, D.C.): The Trump Administration has taken dramatic and sweeping steps to remake federal environmental regulation and redefine the relationships among state and federal environmental decisions. In this year of momentous change, with elections on the horizon, many are asking about the status of these changes and where environmental protection should focus in the future. In response to the growing demand for analysis of how deregulatory initiatives by the Trump Administration will affect environmental protection, governance, and the rule of law, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has released Environment 2021: What Comes Next?

“How one sees the Administration’s initiatives will depend to a large degree on how one views the regulatory machinery that has thus far defined society’s approach to our environmental challenges,” said ELI President Scott Fulton. “But however one sees the Trump regulatory agenda, and whatever the future will have to say about its durability, it must be understood for what it is—the most significant offensive mounted on the federal environmental regulatory system in the history of modern environmental law, unprecedented in its ambition and scope.”

Currently, the U.S. governance, economic, and social systems are under serious strain from the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated dislocations. Meanwhile, public demands for racial justice in policing and law enforcement have energized communities across the nation. These dynamics are layered on top of the many fundamental changes to U.S. environmental regulation already made or still underway. Substantive changes in federal regulations and policies have affected the nation’s response to address climate change, air pollution, the scope of federally protected waters, management of public lands and endangered species, coal ash disposal, and chemical substance regulation, as well as other areas. Numerous Executive Orders and agency actions have also instituted process changes, including changes in rulemaking procedures, cost-benefit analysis, use of scientific information, the role of federal advisory committees, and enforcement policy. The environmental regulatory landscape is in greater flux than at any time since the early 1970s.

Amid these many changes, the report helps environmental practitioners and policymakers, journalists, students, and the public-at-large understand the scope and significance of these changes, as well as think about what lies ahead, looking particularly at likely effects on the regulatory system and the ability to address new problems and meet the as yet unsolved challenges like environmental justice. The report identifies key categories of action affecting environmental regulation and examines some possible future directions. The report makes no assumptions about this fall’s electoral outcomes, but does explore the sensitivity of the various regulatory reform efforts to different electoral outcomes.

The report follows in the footsteps of two previous ELI reports that describe the Trump Administration’s efforts: Regulatory Reform in the Trump Era (2017); and Environmental Protection in the Trump Era (2018) (ELI, with the ABA’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice).

The report is available for download at: https://www.eli.org/research-report/environment-2021-what-comes-next

Lead author James M. McElfish is available for interview.