President-elect Joseph Biden has big plans for climate policy, from rejoining the Paris climate agreement to decarbonizing the electric grid, but these initiatives won’t begin until his inauguration on January 20, 2021. In the meantime, the Trump administration still has 10 weeks (and counting) in office. In the past four years, the administration has already rolled back hundreds of rules designed to do everything from preventing the release of methane from oil wells to limiting how much mercury a coal power plant can emit. In the lame duck period, it could accelerate plans to do more before inauguration day.
In response, experts have formed The Midnight Watch Project, to document any environmental changes, so they can be rolled back as quickly as possible. The project is an initiative from the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at New York University School of Law. The nonpartisan center works with state attorneys general to protect and further climate policies; it began in 2017 with a nearly $6 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The Center has broadly been focused on protecting regulations from Trump administration rollbacks, since it was founded during the Trump presidency—and that administration has rolled back multiple climate policies, potentially leading to 200 million metric tons of extra greenhouse gas emissions each year. Now that Donald Trump is a lame duck president, experts worry he could inflict even more environmental harm before he’s out of office.
“The Trump administration’s legacy on climate change will be one of ‘digging the hole deeper,’ and there is little reason to believe they will be putting the shovel down at this point,” said David J. Hayes, Executive Director of the Center, over email. “There are a number of issues still on the table—rushing to start oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge, expanding leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, directing federal agencies to further downplay greenhouse gases and climate impacts in NEPA reviews, finalizing empty emissions standards for the aviation sector—any of which would take the country further in the wrong direction on climate.
With no worries about repercussions or needing to appeal to voters, presidential transitions can be contentious. When Herbert Hoover lost his reelection bid to Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover prevented relief legislation for farmers and opposed a bill that would have allowed the sale of beer. He also refused to address the banking crisis. Roosevelt, once in office, eventually did pass farm aid, bank regulations, and authorized the sale of beer, but Hoover’s opposition meant the American people had to wait longer for these policies to pass.
The same could happen with environmental policies during Trump’s final weeks in office. Even though Biden may reverse whatever Trump rollbacks happen between now and Inauguration Day, there’s still the chance that they could cause irreversible harm. And Biden may still face an obstructing, Republican-controlled Senate.
The Midnight Watch Project will track any of these eleventh-hour changes over nine areas: climate change; clean air; clean water; clean energy and energy efficiency; public lands; wildlife; safety and toxins; regulatory processes; and executive actions. By consolidating all these changes in one place, Hayes says, the Project will “provide a high-level picture of which regulatory and policy issues remain in play—and to call attention to new issues as they arise.” The goal, he adds, is to highlight these developments “for journalists, for policymakers, for advocates, and for the broader public.”
Experts at the Center already have eyes on a few policies that the Trump administration could enact in the coming weeks. The EPA could soon finalize its decisions to keep the existing National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone and particulate matter pollution, even though, Hayes notes, scientists agree that those standards aren’t strict enough, and still allow for levels of pollution that are dangerous to human health. “These decisions would have lasting nationwide impacts—particularly on environmental justice communities, who face disproportionately high exposure to these pollutants,” Hayes says.
The Interior Department could also expedite its plans to conduct seismic surveying in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—an act the Audubon Society says would “scar” that habitat, and which would set the path for oil and gas development on one of the last truly wild landscapes. “These are just a few of the issues the State Impact Center will be watching closely as the transition period proceeds,” Hayes says, “and we hope the Midnight Watch Project will help others follow closely as well.”