June 25, 2020
Contact: Tom Lalley

New Issue Brief: Enforcement of Environmental Regulations Drops to Historic Lows Under the Trump Administration

Decline in enforcement extends across the myriad federal agencies responsible for protecting the nation’s health and environment.

Washington, D.C. — A new issue brief from the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at NYU School of Law details the deliberate efforts taken by the Trump administration that have led to a historic drop in enforcement of environmental regulations over the past three years. The brief, A Pass to Pollute: Environmental (Non)Enforcement Under the Trump Administrationexamines the four key strategies used by the administration to erode the nation’s health and environmental protections:

  • Systematically undercutting environmental enforcement; 
  • Removing or cutting back key environmental protections; 
  • Hamstringing the rulemaking process itself; and 
  • Pushing the federal government’s enforcement responsibilities onto states.

“This report lifts the veil on the deliberate, across-the-board effort by the Trump administration to give a pass to polluters by kneecapping enforcement of health, safety and environmental laws,” said David J. Hayes, Executive Director of the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center. “We know that the administration favors polluters over people at every turn — even using a pandemic as an excuse to weaken the nation’s bedrock health, safety and environmental laws. But state attorneys general know the playbook and will continue to fight the administration’s anti-environmental agenda, including its failure to enforce the laws that protect the air that we breathe and the water that we drink.”
The report found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted 43% fewer inspections and evaluations in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 compared to the annual average under the Obama administration. Also in FY 2019, civil and criminal enforcement case initiations by the EPA fell 35% and 41% below the Obama-era annual average, respectively.
While reducing enforcement activities, the administration has also rolled back environmental protections, nullifying even the possibility of enforcing them. For example, the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), have moved to eliminate their respective regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, opening the door for this potent greenhouse gas to spew essentially unchecked from thousands of wells.
Additionally, regulatory agencies have taken steps to hamstring the rulemaking process itself. The EPA, for example, is proposing to eliminate consideration of important health and environmental benefits when conducting cost-benefit reviews under the Clean Air Act. It intends to pursue similar changes to cost-benefit analysis of regulations under other statutes — all as an obvious ploy to falsely claim that the costs of new rules outweigh their benefits.
Budget cuts, and the loss of an estimated 4,400 jobs at state environmental protection agencies between 2008 and 2018, have left many states ill-equipped to fill the sudden void in enforcement left by this administration. The Trump administration has also proposed cutting funding for state enforcement programs, including a 44% reduction in categorical grants to states for environmental enforcement in its FY 2021 budget proposal.
The tide may be turning against the Trump administration’s effort to weaken environmental enforcement, pressured by state attorneys general who have taken hundreds of legal and regulatory actions to defend health and environmental laws. In May, a coalition of AGs led by New York Attorney General Letitia James sued the EPA — and filed a motion for preliminary injunction a month later — to halt the agency’s policy that suspended environmental monitoring and reporting requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. Last week the EPA’s own Inspector General warned that the policy, coupled with the agency’s years-long decline in enforcement activity, “threatens the Agency’s overall mission to protect human health and the environment.”



About the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center
The State Energy & Environmental Impact Center (State Impact Center) is a non-partisan Center at the NYU School of Law that is dedicated to helping state attorneys general fight against regulatory rollbacks and advocate for clean energy, climate change, and environmental values and protections. For more information, visit our website