WASHINGTON — As much of his government battles the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump is pushing ahead with major reversals of environmental regulations, including a restriction on scientific research that some doctors worry would complicate future pandemic controls.
Federal employees across multiple agencies said the administration was racing to complete a half-dozen significant rollbacks over the coming month. They include a measure to weaken automobile fuel efficiency standards, which one person familiar with the plans said would be issued as early as next week.
Other efforts include loosening controls on toxic ash from coal plants, relaxing restrictions on mercury emissions and weakening the consideration of climate change in environmental reviews for most infrastructure projects.
The aggressive timeline is aimed at shielding the policies from easy reversal if Democrats win the White House or control of the Senate in the 2020 election. While it is hardly unusual to see a push to finalize policies toward the end of an administration, several agency officials said they were surprised that political leaders had shown no sign of letting up amid the pandemic.
A dozen federal workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about agency work, all described a relentless atmosphere at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Several people said they had been told to expect no “slippage” or relaxation of deadlines, although thousands of federal employees, like much of the nation, are working from home and juggling child care and work responsibilities.
The administration also has denied requests to extend public-comment periods in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet in at least one case, a policy to shield oil companies and other businesses from fines if they unintentionally kill birds, the administration has twice requested an extension for legal briefs in the court fight over the policy, citing school closures and other personal challenges posed by the pandemic.
With an election looming, the urgency of completing regulations is real. Under the Congressional Review Act, Congress can overturn a regulation or federal rule within 60 days of it being finalized. If Democrats win control of the White House and Senate in November, and keep control of the House, any rule completed after late May or early June would be vulnerable.
“The administration understands the electoral map has turned against it,” said Richard L. Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University.
EPA and Interior Department officials said they were sensitive to the circumstances around the coronavirus and would consider delays on a case-by-case basis. But they also emphasized that the administration remained focused on doing its job.
“We understand that COVID-19 has caused disruption in the lives of many Americans, but it is our duty to the American people to ensure we are continuing our work toward protecting human health and the environment,” said Andrea Woods, an EPA spokeswoman, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The administration’s industry allies applauded the push to compete deregulation policies as a way to deliver certainty to businesses when the economy is in free fall.
“The U.S. government clearly is focused on public health and economic stabilization across the board,” said Martin Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute.
Environmental and public health critics accused the Trump administration of taking advantage of the pandemic to barrel ahead while opponents were occupied with the crisis.
“The administration is essentially taking advantage of the fact that the public is distracted and in fact disabled from fully engaging against this ideological push,” said David J. Hayes, director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, which works with attorneys general to challenge environmental rollbacks.
One of the changes pending is an EPA regulation to limit the types of scientific studies the agency can use when writing new or revising existing public health policies. Under the proposal, the EPA might reject or give less weight to studies that do not make underlying data publicly available so the research can be independently replicated.
The agency has argued that science used to make regulations requires greater transparency. But almost every major scientific group has opposed the rule because key fields of research (for example, linking air pollution to premature deaths or the studying consequences of pesticide exposure) rely on personal health information from subjects who agree to participate in studies only if their data is kept confidential.
Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the proposal could be used to reject research around the coronavirus that might be used to develop things like regulations on handling medical waste or protecting people who might face exposure inside a building.
“There will be an enormous amount of clinical data that will be collected on COVID-19 that might be excluded,” Benjamin said, noting that in many cases it would be unlikely that patient details would be made public in a way that meets the EPA’s demands.
In a letter to the EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, called for the rule to be withdrawn.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the importance of ensuring rapid access and response to scientific information, as well as the utilization of that information,” Carper wrote. “Unfortunately, if this rule is finalized, I fear the result will be just the opposite.”
Attorneys general for 14 states and six cities argued that opponents should at least have more time to comment on the rule since it directly relates to public health, and experts in the field are focused on the coronavirus.
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“These rollbacks need and deserve the input of our public health community, but right now, they are rightfully focused on responding to the coronavirus,” said Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
A final 30-day comment period on that rule, the minimum amount of time allowable under law, began on March 3. The EPA has so far not agreed to an extension and has declined requests from opponents to hold virtual public meetings. Woods, the EPA spokeswoman, said the agency would consider requests for extensions but also noted that the website for comment, Regulations.gov, “is fully functional.”
She called fears that the proposed rule would impede the EPA’s ability to respond to emergencies like the coronavirus “unfounded.”
“Our most important environmental statutes provide EPA with authority to issue emergency orders or respond to address emergencies to protect human health and the environment,” Woods said, adding the science regulation “would not limit or impede EPA’s authority to undertake such responses.”
At the Interior Department, employees at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been under strict orders to complete the rule eliminating some protections for migratory birds within 30 days, according to two people with direct knowledge of the orders. The 45-day comment period on that rule ended on March 19.
Conner Swanson, a spokesman for the department, said the proposed regulation codified an agency legal opinion that was issued in December of 2017, and notice that a rule would be coming was made public in the fall of 2018.
“The proposed rule was not a surprise to the public, as more than 46,000 comments were received on the proposal,” Swanson said.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based association of independent oil and gas companies that supports ending the bird protections, said federal workers now had more time, not less, to finalize the rules.
“At a time when so much of our lives have been disrupted by the virus, these rule-makings are work that government employees can continue to do in the safety of their home,” she said. “If anything they have the concentration now because they are not being pulled in many different directions in meetings and everything else.”
The Trump administration has not been consistent with that argument. Eight states and several environmental groups including the Audubon Society have sued the Interior Department over its interpretation that entities should face no penalties for killing birds unless the killings could be proven to be intentional.
In a March 9 letter to Judge Valerie E. Caproni of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman noted that school closures in New York related to the coronavirus “will have a significant disruptive effect on my schedule” and pleaded for a weeklong extension, which was granted.
A second letter on March 20 to the court asked again for more time, citing “disruptions and dislocations that have resulted from the COVID-19 public health emergency.”
Interior Department officials said those requests came from the Justice Department.