The administration of US President Donald Trump is rushing to issue permits, finalize major environmental regulations and even sell the rights to drill for oil in Alaskan wilderness before inauguration day in a push that could complicate US president-elect Joe Biden’s climate and conservation agenda.
The 11th-hour regulatory race underscores the extent to which US agencies are anticipating Biden’s swearing-in as US president on Jan. 20 even as Trump refuses to concede the election. It also reveals a widespread effort by Trump officials to leave their imprint on US policy and — at least temporarily — tie the hands of their successors.
“Everyone has to be vigilant over the next 60-odd days, because the administration can create more work for the people coming in,” said former US deputy secretary of the interior David Hayes, who leads New York University’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center. “They can take additional actions here that will put sand in the gears of the early Biden administration.”
The Trump administration on Monday took a major step toward selling drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, despite Biden’s vow to protect that Alaskan wilderness.
Officials are also reviewing measures that would lift criminal penalties for accidentally killing migratory birds, lock in existing air pollution limits and make it harder to impose new environmental safeguards.
Altogether, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs that is in charge of reviewing proposed rules is looking at 23 measures submitted since the election, foreshadowing the coming deluge.
While Biden officials could unwind many Trump rules, that would consume time and resources even as the incoming administration intends to write new measures regarding pollution, energy efficiency and drilling regulations.
The Biden administration would probably not have help from the US Congress immediately on overturning rules under the US’ Congressional Review Act, as Republicans are likely to maintain control of the US Senate. The act makes it easier to repeal last-minute regulations enacted by an outgoing administration.
“They have to clean up this huge mess that’s been deliberately left behind before they can even start advancing their affirmative agenda,” said James Goodwin, an analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform.
“The story for the last four years is how can we tear down these agencies and make them as useless as possible,” Goodwin said. “The next few weeks is going to be dedicated to that, and they will not miss a trick when it comes to making the Biden administration’s life a misery.”
For instance, the White House just began scrutinizing a final rule to end criminal penalties for oil explorers, homebuilders and other companies that accidentally kill migratory birds, setting the stage for the US Department of the Interior to finalize the measure within weeks.
On Thursday last week, the White House started reviewing a rule defining the habitat that gets protection under the US’ Endangered Species Act, just four weeks after the deadline for public comments on the proposed measure.
The US Department of Energy is trying to finish regulations weakening energy efficiency standards for furnaces and other appliances. That includes a rule greenlighting high-flow shower heads with multiple nozzles — a measure that drew momentum after Trump complained that with more efficient models “you can’t wash your beautiful hair properly.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is rushing to codify decisions to retain existing air quality limits on ozone and particulate matter, rebuffing public health advocates’ calls to tighten the pollution standards.
The administration is also propelling regulations that go to the heart of the EPA’s power.
Under the outgoing administration, the agency is close to finalizing two measures that could make it harder to impose pollution curbs. One would block the agency from relying on scientific research that is not or cannot be made public. Another would limit how the EPA calculates the costs and benefits of future regulations.
It is customary for administrations to finalize a spate of rules during their final months in office, with a final spurt of so-called midnight regulations.
“One big difference from the recent past is that because Trump is only a one-term president, there is more for EPA to rush to finalize then when we’ve had two-term presidents, but there is a real risk that anything EPA rushes out the door in sloppy fashion will get struck down in court, just like so many of EPA’s rollbacks under Trump have been,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy expert at the watchdog group Public Citizen.
Although inauguration day is still nine weeks away, the regulatory clock might run out sooner. The enforcement of any final rules that have not become binding by Jan. 20 can be postponed by a new administration, buying time for a rewrite.
As there is a 60-day waiting period for major rules to come into force, the Trump administration needs to get those measures published in the US government’s Federal Register by Saturday.
The EPA is already trying to beat that clock with an air permitting regulation teed up for publication in the Federal Register today, just two days before the cutoff.
The push goes beyond well-telegraphed rules to permitting decisions and project approvals that might be harder to undo.
For example, the interior department is fast-tracking a proposal to conduct seismic surveys in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — an industrial operation designed to help pinpoint possible oil reserves that environmentalists say risks scarring the tundra and trampling polar bears in snow-covered dens.
Alaska Wilderness League executive director Adam Kolton said he is deeply concerned that the interior department is trying “to jam this massive seismic program through in the final minutes of the Trump administration,” without enough environmental review and against the wishes of the US public.
While regulations can be undone, the Biden administration could not repair damage if heavy seismic vehicles roll into to the refuge and begin work, Kolton said.
“If you want to throw a hand grenade in the middle of the interior department transition team, this would be the way to do it,” he said.
The Trump administration is also preparing to sell drilling rights in the refuge before Jan. 20.
On Monday, the interior department gave oil companies 30 days to nominate tracts for sale, setting up a possible auction next month or in January.
Every step advancing arctic oil development could complicate a Biden administration retreat — especially if leases are formally issued before Trump leaves office.
Interior department officials are meticulously planning every step toward a sale, mindful of the tight time line. For instance, even though it typically takes the government about two months to vet bids and issue leases — including through a 30-day attorney-general review — the agency is looking at ways that the process can move more quickly, an administration official said on the condition of anonymity.
Oil companies can also expect a few more chances to buy drilling rights in other parts of the US, including during a Trump administration sale of coveted New Mexico territory on Jan. 14.
The last-minute push is essential, said Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a free-market advocacy group that has cheered much of Trump’s deregulatory agenda.
“Even as President Trump and his legal team continue to explore their options, it is critical that his agencies to put a full-court press on getting the remainder of his agenda across the finish line as an insurance policy,” Pyle said. “Joe Biden did not receive a mandate from voters to upend all the gains that President Trump made with respect to our energy independence.”
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