Five environmental fights to watch in 2020

Five environmental fights to watch in 2020
© Greg Nash

2020 is shaping up to be a busy year on the energy and environmental front.

The Trump administration is pushing ahead with its broad regulatory rollback, while on Capitol Hill House Democrats are looking to pass legislation on their ambitious clean energy agenda.

Hovering over those moves will be the approaching presidential election, certain to raise the stakes for Washington's environmental policy fights.


Here are the five biggest fights we'll be watching in the year ahead.


EPA's regulatory rollback

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior official called Black Lives Matter 'racist,' defended alleged Kenosha shooter | Trump signs bipartisan bill funding conservation grants  Overnight Energy: Interior ends endangered species protections for gray wolves | Top Interior official retaliated against whistleblower, watchdog says | EPA limits enforcement of pesticide application boundaries EPA limits enforcement of pesticide application boundaries MORE has said he is often asked how the agency can protect the environment by rolling back regulations.

“This question assumes that regulation is the only path to environmental protection,” Wheeler told the Detroit Economic Club in October. “Innovation and technology have led to remarkable environmental progress and often deregulation is necessary to spur on that innovation. Furthermore, deregulation does not always mean rolling back rules. More often than not it means modernizing or simplifying or streamlining regulations.”

But the flood of lawsuits against the agency and the Interior Department make it clear not everyone shares that view.

In 2019 alone, states or environmental groups, often together, have sued over rollbacks of the Endangered Species Act, tailpipe emissions rules, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the U.S. rule, offshore drilling safety regulations, and the easing of efficiency standards for lightbulbs, just to name lawsuits working their way through the courts. 


The Supreme Court will be hearing two cases, one a lawsuit from the Sierra Club challenging President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE's border wall and another case involving a challenge to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. 

And there are more controversial regulations coming down that are likely to spur lawsuits.

The “secret science” regulation that would block the EPA from considering studies that don’t make their underlying data public is expected to come out in 2020. The rule has sparked concerns the EPA would be unnecessarily limiting the scope of their scientific review, ignoring landmark research that cannot publicize the sensitive personal data of participants.

Also expected are regulations to address PFAS, a cancer-linked chemical leaching into drinking water, Part two of the EPA’s take on the Waters of the U.S. Rule that dictates which rivers and streams are federally protected, a rollback of clean car standards, mercury standards and the opening of parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling — all likely fodder for legal challenges.


Climate change

Next month the Democratic House Energy and Commerce Committee will roll out legislation to reach a 100 percent clean economy by 2050, commonly known as "100 by 50."

Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoOvernight Energy: Trump officials finalize plan to open up protected areas of Tongass to logging | Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium | Dems question EPA's postponement of inequality training Democrats question EPA postponement of environmental inequality training Clark rolls out endorsements in assistant Speaker race MORE (D-N.Y.) and others have been tinkering away on the plan for some time, meeting with a wide variety of stakeholders, including those who might normally oppose sweeping climate legislation.

"While we have a climate denier in office, we have the time available to put together the best product," Tonko said at a press conference before Congress left for recess.

The bill follows a similar effort led by Rep. A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden pledges carbon-free power by 2035 in T environment plan | Trump administration has been underestimating costs of carbon pollution, government watchdog finds | Trump to move forward with rollback of bedrock environmental law Trump to move forward with rollback of bedrock environmental law Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 MORE (D-Va.) to require government agencies to reach the 100 by 50 goal, but this next bill will cover the entire economy, Tonko said, and is likely to include some kind of price on carbon. 

Tonko called it the “most difficult piece of the puzzle."

"We will move forward during the course of this year to, again, hear from all the perspectives, all the different modeling that people embrace and we may come up with a hybrid, but we have time to develop this,” he added. 

Of course, any climate bill is likely to be controversial. But Rep. Scott PetersScott H. PetersTrump's illness sparks new urgency for COVID-19 deal Moderate Democrats push leadership to pull marijuana legislation One doctor's thoughts on a hopeful future MORE (D-Calif.) said the bill won’t be the party’s only strategy for fighting climate change.

“We’re going to come up with this major bill that covers a wide range of climate issues, but I think we’re going to make a lot of progress chipping away issue by issue,” he said, noting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTop Senate GOP super PAC makes final .6M investment in Michigan Senate race On The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election Overnight Health Care: House Dem report blasts Trump coronavirus response | Regeneron halts trial of antibody drug in sickest hospitalized patients | McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 MORE (R-Ky.) would likely refuse to bring big pieces of climate legislation to the floor. “It is very frustrating to do this work, and then have it sit over there. I think that's kind of our reality.”


California lawsuits 

Sure, a lot of states like to sue over Trump's environmental rollbacks, but perhaps none have been as litigious as California — or been targeted by the administration.

One of the biggest points of contention between the White House and the most populous state in the nation has centered on efforts to roll back fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions standards for vehicles. 

California hasn’t just been fighting to preserve its right to maintain tougher standards than the federal government. They also brokered a deal with some automakers to continue to produce more fuel efficient vehicles — something the Department of Justice decided to investigate.

The Trump administration eventually backed off its plan to freeze fuel economy standards but has said it will stick to changing tail pipe emissions standards in the year ahead. 

The fight isn’t just over cars. 


Letters from EPA to the state show the administration is eager to make California a foil.

In September, the EPA threatened to withhold California’s billions of dollars in highway funds unless the state worked through a backlog of plans for managing their air pollution. Later that same week, the agency blamed the homeless when criticizing California’s water quality. 

The correspondence and the court battles are only expected to escalate in 2020. California has sued the Trump administration over environmental rules 34 times, and many of those cases are still working their way through court. 


Forever chemicals

The class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS and commonly known as "forever chemicals" are used in products as diverse as nonstick cookware to firefighting foam, but the problem is their spread into the water supply, and from there, into human bodies.

Efforts to regulate the cancer-linked chemical were stripped from the most likely vehicle: the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).


Some funding to address PFAS was placed in a House appropriations bill, but the policy effort now rests squarely on a stand-alone bill being pushed by House Democrats over objections from Republicans that it may be too far-reaching. Expect that legislation to come to the floor in January. 

One major point of contention is whether and how to force EPA to set a drinking water standard that limits how much PFAS can be in tap water. Negotiations on the NDAA were derailed after Democrats pushed for a more stringent standard that would protect vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women. Republicans though wanted to make sure the standard wouldn’t be financially impractical for utilities. 

The broad nature of the House bill guarantees more disagreement ahead. There are at least 5,000 different chains of PFAS, and Republicans are hesitant to restrict the less studied forms that may not be as toxic.

Outside of party differences, the House and Senate are also likely to disagree over whether to add PFAS to the Superfund law — another big difference between the earlier House and Senate versions of the NDAA.



The long simmering battle between Congress and environmental agencies may finally boil over in the new year.

2019 brought in new faces to the Department of Interior and EPA — two agencies whose leaders had dominated headlines for conflicts of interest and ethical lapses. 

EPA Administrator Wheeler and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt are other top officials have been under scrutiny.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has been inching toward a subpoena of Interior for some time, holding a hearing on the agency’s refusal to turn over documents on a number inquiries and threatening a subpoena over plans to relocate the Bureau of Land Management.

He could find inspiration from House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonHillicon Valley: DOJ indicts Chinese, Malaysian hackers accused of targeting over 100 organizations | GOP senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal | QAnon awareness jumps in new poll House passes legislation to boost election security research Hillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump campaign tweet of Biden clip as manipulated media | Democrats demand in-person election security briefings resume | Proposed rules to protect power grid raise concerns MORE (D-Texas), who in November subpoenaed the EPA, demanding answers on various scientific rulemakings that lawmakers argue have been unnecessarily delayed.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have numerous requests in investigations on matters ranging from lobbyists-turned-federal employees who have worked on matters tied to former clients to changes in public records policy that allows political appointees to weigh in on what is returned to those seeking information.