The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion With the country distracted, the EPA tees off on the environment

Debris left from flood waters litters a downtown sidewalk in Calgary, Canada, on June 24, 2013.
Debris left from flood waters litters a downtown sidewalk in Calgary, Canada, on June 24, 2013. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

THE NOVEL coronavirus has halted much of the country — but it has not stopped the Trump administration from ramming through unwarranted and unwise rollbacks of major environmental rules. Administration officials have pressed government workers, even amid the pandemic, to rip up regulations well before the November election, which would make them harder for a new president to reinstate. The pressure appears to be working.

The Environmental Protection Agency concluded on March 31 its years-long effort to quash car and truck fuel efficiency rules designed during President Barack Obama’s administration. The old regulations would have required steady 5 percent-per-year improvements in average fuel economy through 2025. The new ones demand only 1.5 percent annually through 2026. That may not sound like much of a difference, but the updated rules would allow perhaps 1 billion or more tons of extra planet-warming carbon dioxide to waft into the atmosphere — akin to opening dozens of coal-fired power plants. While auto sticker prices would be lower, forgone fuel savings would cost consumers over the lives of their vehicles.

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The rationale for such a massive shift is so lame that the EPA struggled to get its cost-benefit numbers to add up. The agency’s own scientific advisory panel warned that the math underlying the new rule was riddled with weaknesses and improbabilities. The United States would move from a leader to a laggard in auto efficiency, which could also hurt U.S. carmakers’ ability to compete with foreign competitors. Years of litigation over this unjustifiable policy move will add more uncertainty to car companies’ manufacturing decisions.

The auto rules rollback is only the most spectacular example of the damage the EPA is wreaking while the country looks elsewhere. The Center for Investigative Reporting noted last month that the administration pressed ahead with hearings on whether to regulate a potentially toxic chemical despite many members of the public — and even some of those on the expert panel that convened to consider research on the chemical — not being free to attend during the covid-19 crisis.

Also last month, the EPA issued an unusually permissive memo to the companies it regulates, allowing them to skip routine pollution checks, testing and training if they can claim that covid-19 interrupted their operations. Some leeway may be necessary, particularly on requirements for in-person training. But the memo was so broadly worded and out of step with previous EPA practices that it will likely encourage companies to try to get away with far more than the situation demands, with the pandemic as a handy excuse. The document even raised the possibility that polluters might not be punished for creating “an acute risk or an imminent threat to human health or the environment” if they can argue that their failure was tied to the pandemic.

Still on deck for quick action are administration efforts to relax rules on coal ash and mercury emissions.

One would imagine that a pandemic — one made worse by government officials ignoring experts for too long — would cause Trump administration leaders some pause. Instead, they seem only more determined to undermine rules designed to protect public health and the environment .

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Read more:

Letters to the Editor: The EPA isn’t allowing an increase in emissions

Monica Medina and Miro Korenha: The environmental upside of the virus shows the green way ahead

Paul Waldman: Coronavirus may alter the political landscape. But the GOP won’t change.

The Post’s View: The EPA must not ignore alarming science

Letters to the Editor: Trump’s EPA is the Business Protection Agency

David J. Hayes: Trump is aggressively pushing his anti-environment agenda amid a pandemic. It’s inexcusable.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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