The Trump administration has a parting gift for the climate, and it’s atrocious. In an unexpected move, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalised a rule that will limit future greenhouse gas standards under the Clean Air Act to applying only to industries whose emissions account for more than 3 per cent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas output. Effectively, that means the limits will apply only to power plants while allowing the producers of oil and gas, petrochemicals, steel, and other polluting sectors to avoid regulation.
The ridiculous rule change will be published on Wednesday, just eight days before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is set to take the White House. It seems designed to give him a headache once he does. The incoming administration has promised to make steep reductions to the country’s contributions to global warming, but the new rule will get limit one of its best available tools to do so.
There’s never a good time to get rid of greenhouse gas limits, but the timing of this rollback is pretty wild. In the past few days, researchers announced that 2020 was the hottest year in human history and that the year saw 22 separate billion-dollar climate disasters in the U.S., the highest number ever recorded . It’s never been clearer that we need to draw down greenhouse gas pollution.
The rollback seems intentionally crafted to exempt the fossil fuel sector from future regulation. In the rule change, the EPA said the oil and gas industry is responsible for just under 3% of the country’s planet-warming pollution, a level that it labelled as “necessarily insignificant.”
But this calculation ignores the fact that not all greenhouse gases are equally destructive. The fossil fuel sector is responsible for methane emissions, which have 80 times the global warming potential of carbon pollution in the short term, so its output is particularly dangerous. It also ignores the fact that oil and gas companies are responsible for supplying other industries fuelling the climate crisis, and the reality that every single source of carbon emissions must be reduced to zero in order to avoid catastrophic climate change.
In a statement, the pollution control advocacy group the Clean Air Task Force called the language “absurd.” It also believes it to be illegal, since the EPA didn’t give proper notice or meet requirements for a public comment period.
“This unlawful rule is a transparent attempt to erect roadblocks to protecting public health and the environment for the new administration, but Clean Air Task Force and its partners will not be deterred,” Jay Duffy, an attorney for the organisation, said in a statement.
The rule is set to go into effect in 60 days, but is sure to face legal challenges. And Biden, who has pledged to do all it can to freeze the implementation of the Trump administration’s last minute rule changes, will surely reverse course once in office. Let’s hope they succeed, because if they fail to overturn it, the planet is in trouble.
“The climate crisis cannot be solved, and our most vulnerable citizens cannot be protected, unless every industry does its part to transition to clean energy and net zero emissions,” David Doniger, senior strategic director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defence Council, said in a statement.
The fact that such a drastic change is being introduced so late and without warning points to the likely goal of throwing sand in the Biden administration’s gears, and other evidence backs that up. A flurry of rule changes have been pushed through in Trump’s lame duck period. That includes another this week that would force banks to loan to oil drillers because to otherwise would be discriminatory, a claim leveled by Republicans and the administration that is absolutely meritless, and frankly, insulting given the actual discrimination communities of colour have faced from banks for decades. Earlier this week, Trump-hired scientists also tried to publish climate denial-spewing flyers under the White House’s imprimatur, only to be rebuffed and dismissed. Who knows what the next seven days will hold.