The Trump administration’s tumultuous first months have brought a flurry of changes—both realized and anticipated—to U.S. environmental policy. Many of the actions roll back Obama-era policies that aimed to curb climate change and limit environmental pollution, while others threaten to limit federal funding for science and the environment.
The stakes are enormous. The Trump administration takes power amid the first days of meaningful international action against climate change, an issue on which political polarization still runs deep. And for the first time in years, Republicans have control of the White House and both houses of Congress—giving them an opportunity to remake the nation’s environmental laws in their image.
It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article periodically as news develops.
Trump Inner Circle Discusses Paris Agreement
April 18, 2017 - Key Trump advisers and Cabinet officials are set to discuss whether the U.S. should stay in the Paris Agreement, according to an April 14 Politico report. The global climate pact was absent from Trump’s March 28 executive order on climate, and debate over whether the U.S. should leave the agreement has divided the White House. Politico reports that Trump is expected to make a final decision on the global climate pact by late May.
Pruitt Calls for Exiting Paris Agreement
April 14, 2017 - In an interview on “Fox & Friends,” EPA administrator Scott Pruitt says that he’s personally opposed to the Paris Agreement, the international pact to fight climate change negotiated in 2015. While Pruitt calls the pact “a bad deal for America,” the Trump administration has remained noncommittal on withdrawing from the agreement, reports the Washington Post.
EPA Announces “Back-to-Basics” Agenda
April 13, 2017 - With Pennsylvania’s Harvey coal mine as his backdrop, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announces a “back-to-basics” agenda for the environmental agency, which he describes as “protecting the environment by engaging with state, local, and tribal partners to create sensible regulations that enhance economic growth.” The agenda includes reviews of the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States rule, two key Obama-era environmental regulations, as well as promises to clear the backlog of new chemicals awaiting EPA approval. (Read the whole agenda here.)
Climate Change Staffers Reassigned
April 7, 2017 - News outlets report that several staff members at EPA’s headquarters who specialized in climate change adaptation have been reassigned. However, an EPA official interviewed by The Hill emphasizes that the agency’s regional offices “have always taken the lead on adaptation and will continue to do so.” An EPA official interviewed by National Geographic says that the staff—four employees in all—will continue at the agency’s Office of Policy, bringing their knowledge to a broader set of issues.
Trump Donates to National Parks
April 3, 2017 - The White House announces that President Trump has donated the first quarter of his salary ($78,333.32) to the National Park Service. The gift will reportedly chip away at the $100 to $230 million in deferred maintenance backlogs that the nation’s battlefields currently bear. (The National Park Service’s total deferred maintenance backlog is valued at $12 billion.) Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint calls for a $1.5-billion cut to the U.S. Department of the Interior, to which the National Park Service and its $3.4-billion budget belong. Among other things, the 12-percent cut would eliminate funding for unspecified National Heritage Areas—lived-in, cohesive landscapes deemed by Congress to be nationally important. Several National Heritage Areas contain preserved battlefields.
Scientific Integrity Office Reviewing Pruitt
March 31, 2017 - In response to inquiries from the Sierra Club, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General refers Scott Pruitt’s March 9 CNBC interview to the agency’s scientific integrity office for review. In that interview, Pruitt had downplayed carbon emissions’ central role in driving Earth’s changing climate—a position at odds with scientific consensus. EPA spokespeople defend Pruitt, claiming that the administrator is within his right to have a differing opinion. As of April 6, 2017, the Office of Inspector General said that the review had no specified timeframe.
EPA Scientist Retires with a Bang
March 31, 2017 - Environmental scientist Michael Cox retires from the EPA after more than 25 years with the agency, penning a scorching farewell letter to agency administrator Scott Pruitt. The letter, which garners significant media coverage, lambasts the Trump administration for “working to dismantle EPA and its staff as quickly as possible.”
Pesticide Avoids Total Ban
March 29, 2017 - Against the advice of the EPA’s chemical safety experts, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt rejects a decade-old petition asking that the EPA ban all use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. In 2000, the EPA banned its use in most household settings, but the pesticide is still used on some 40,000 farms, which EPA scientists recommended stop. Research suggests that chlorpyrifos may be associated with brain damage in children and farm workers, even at low exposures—though Dow Chemical, chlorpyrifos’ manufacturer, argues that it is safe when properly used. The U.S. Department of Agriculture welcomes Pruitt’s decision as helpful for U.S. farmers.
Climate Actions Undone
March 28, 2017 - President Trump signs an executive order that seeks to dismantle much of the work on climate change enacted by the Obama administration. The order takes steps to downplay the future costs of carbon emissions, walks back tracking of the federal government’s carbon emissions, rescinds a 2016 moratorium on coal leases on federal lands, and strikes down Obama-era executive orders and memoranda aimed at helping the country prepare for climate change's worst impacts, including threats to national security.
Most notably, the executive order begins the process of rescinding the EPA's Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants. (Read more about the order—and how China may take up global leadership on climate change.)
Dakota Access Pipeline Prepared for Use
March 27, 2017 - Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the Dakota Access Pipeline, notifies a federal court that it has pumped oil into the pipeline laid underneath North Dakota’s Lake Oahe. The pipeline, which aims to connect North Dakota’s shale oil fields with pipeline networks in Illinois, runs near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and through land promised under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie but later taken away. The pipeline sparked protests over its potential to contaminate water and damage a sacred tribal site—a movement that grew into the largest Native American protest in recent history. (Meet the defiant “water protectors” of Standing Rock.)
Keystone XL Pipeline Approved
March 24, 2017 - The Trump administration’s State Department grants a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,200-mile pipeline would connect Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in Texas. President Obama had rejected the project in late 2015, amid concerns that the pipeline’s economic benefits were hype—and fears that the pipeline would exacerbate future carbon emissions. In 2014, the U.S. State Department found that the project would increase emissions but no more than other transport methods.
U.S. Bumblebee Officially Listed as Endangered
March 21, 2017 - The rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) officially becomes listed as an endangered species, the first bumblebee and eighth U.S. bee species to receive federal protection. Originally, its listing was to be finalized on February 10—but a January 20 executive order delayed it by over a month, as the Trump administration reviewed Obama-era regulations that hadn’t yet taken effect. (Read more about the bumblebee listing.)
Flint Funding Continued
March 17, 2017 - The EPA issues a news release saying that the agency has awarded $100 million to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. The money—provided in a law signed by President Obama in December 2016—will fund drinking water infrastructure upgrades in Flint, Michigan, where drinking water remains contaminated with lead. (These intimate portraits of Flint’s citizens reveal their frustration, fear, and perseverance.)
Fuel Efficiency Standards Reconsidered
March 15, 2017 - EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announce that the EPA will reconsider the Obama-era emissions requirements for vehicles with model years between 2022 and 2025. The move may presage a rollback of Obama’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, regulations that aim to improve cars’ fuel economy. On January 12, 2017, the Obama EPA attempted to lock in its CAFE standards, which require light-duty vehicles to have average fuel efficiencies of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Trump administration and automakers have argued that this goal is unachievable.
Science and Environment Budget Threatened
March 13, 2017 - The White House releases its first preliminary budget under President Trump. Confirming weeks of speculation, the budget outlines deep cuts to U.S. science and environmental agencies—notably EPA and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—and a vast array of social programs, in an effort to increase defense spending by $54 billion. Congressional and public opposition to the budget crystallizes almost immediately. (Read more about the budget cuts’ potential effects on the environment.)
EPA Chief Downplays Climate
March 9, 2017 - In a sharp break with scientific consensus, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt says in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that carbon dioxide’s role in the Earth’s changing climate remains unclear. U.S. and international scientists have repeatedly connected rising carbon emissions to the Earth’s changing climate. A 2014 review by the National Academy of Sciences, the United States’ preeminent scientific advisory body, observed that the Earth’s warming since the 1970s “is mainly a result of the increased concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.”
March 7, 2017 - The New Republic reports that the EPA’s Office of Science and Technology removed the word “science” from its mission statement, based on information provided by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. The updated language, which instead emphasizes "economically and technologically achievable performance standards," marks the latest change to the EPA’s website under Trump, as website updates downplay the Obama administration’s previous climate initiatives.
Emissions Info Request Nixed
March 2, 2017 - The EPA withdraws an Obama EPA request for more detailed information on oil and natural-gas facilities. That request, finalized by the Obama administration on November 10, 2016, had aimed to better track the industry’s methane and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. (Oil and gas facilities are the country’s largest industrial emitters of methane.) The Trump EPA had criticized the rule for its estimated $42-million cost on oil and gas industries.
Federal Lands Won’t Be Unleaded
March 2, 2017 - After riding to work on a horse, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spends his first day on the job rescinding an Obama-era prohibition of lead ammunition on federal lands and waters. The Obama Administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service had issued the ban on January 19, 2017, the day before Trump’s inauguration. The National Rifle Association and hunting groups laud Zinke’s move as supportive of hunting’s economic contribution, while conservation groups decry it, noting that lead ammunition can poison wildlife. (Learn how a ban on lead ammunition could save California’s rare condors.)
Water Protection May Dry Up
February 28, 2017 - President Trump issues an executive order formally asking the EPA to review the “Waters of the United States” rule, an Obama-era rule meant to clarify which U.S. waters fall under federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction. The rule had extended federal protections to some headwaters of larger waterways, wetlands, and isolated lakes. (Read more about the controversy surrounding the rule.)
Scott Pruitt Confirmed as EPA Chief
February 17, 2017 - The U.S. Senate confirms Scott Pruitt as the head of the U.S. EPA. In his prior role as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt frequently sued the EPA over its regulations, notably leading a 27-state lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan. Emails released days after Pruitt’s confirmation show that in his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt’s office maintained a cozy relationship with oil and gas companies.
Streams Reopened to Mining Waste
February 16, 2017 - President Trump signs a joint resolution passed by Congress revoking the U.S. Department of the Interior’s “Stream Protection Rule.” That rule, finalized shortly before President Obama left office, placed stricter restrictions on dumping mining waste into surrounding waterways. Congressional Republicans characterized the rule as redundant and onerous. (Read “Why Trump Can’t Make Coal Great Again.”)
Fossil Fuel CEO Becomes Chief Diplomat
February 1, 2017 - The U.S. Senate confirms ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Tillerson’s extensive ties to fossil fuels—and difficult-to-pin-down stance on climate science—sparked fierce opposition to his nomination among environmentalists. Questions linger over what Tillerson and the Trump administration will do about U.S. involvement in the Paris Agreement, the international climate pact negotiated under the Obama administration.
March for Science Materializes
January 25, 2017 - After news that the Trump administration had removed all references to climate change from the White House’s website, online commenters begin calling for a “Scientists’ March on Washington,” styled after the record-breaking Women’s March on January 21. Momentum quickly builds, resulting in plans for the March for Science, scheduled for April 22.
January 24, 2017 - President Trump issues several memoranda aiming to hasten permitting for the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. Trump also calls for the U.S. Department of Commerce to come up with a plan ensuring that pipelines built across the United States are made with U.S. steel. However, later reports clarify that the memo does not apply to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Park Service #Resists
January 20, 2017 - Trump is inaugurated president. Minutes later, the National Park Service posts a photo on Twitter comparing Trump’s crowds with the much larger crowds at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Trump’s subsequent criticism of the National Park Service triggers an unofficial “resistance” movement of social media accounts that claim to be run by U.S. government officials. (Read more about the “science rebellion” blossoming under Trump.)
Scramble to Save Science Data
December 10, 2016 - Fearing that the incoming Trump administration may attempt to delete or bury U.S. climate databases, meteorologist and climate journalist Eric Holthaus asks on Twitter for suggestions of important databases to back up. His query sparks a movement across academia to back up key databases, resulting in “data refuges” and the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.
Trump Takes All
November 8, 2016 - Real estate developer Donald Trump wins the 2016 U.S. presidential election. His upset victory comes after a months-long campaign that focused little on environmental issues, but did denounce the Obama administration’s climate policies and champion the U.S. fossil fuels industry.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 31, 2017, and was last updated on April 18, 2017.