With the number of new coronavirus cases in the U.S. seeming to decline, but unemployment soaring and the economy in free-fall, President Trump held a press conference recently to talk about a political imperative: getting capitalism off the stretcher.
“There is a hunger for getting our country back and it’s happening faster than people would think,” Trump told reporters. “Ensuring the health of our economy is vital to ensuring the health of our nation.”
Part of the prescription the president is expected to announce later this week, during a rollout of a new administration plan to stimulate the economy, is a slashing of environmental regulations, as well as further tax cuts, loans and grants for business.
The Trump medicine could include expedited EPA approvals of pipelines and other major construction projects. According to news reports, his administration may also review -- and possibly suspend -- any pollution control rules that are perceived to inhibit economic growth.
“Frankly, I don’t think the coronavirus has anything to do with this,” said Stan Meiburg, Director of the Sustainability Program at Wake Forest University who served as Acting Deputy Administrator of the EPA from 2014 to 2017.
“It’s not clear to me that this is really being motivated by any desire to stimulate the economy,” Meiburg continued. “The administration has been on a rollback track for environmental rules ever since the day they took office. So I don’t see any change in their behavior.”
If this is correct, what may be really going on is what author Naomi Klein called “disaster capitalism.” That’s the exploitation of a crisis by those with economic power to quietly push through long-sought changes that are unpopular with the general public. During a crisis, those in political power assume even more authority, and average people have their defenses down.
During Hurricane Katrina, the change was the rapid privatization of the New Orleans public schools. Following a devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, government seized the waterfront properties of fishermen to give it to private hotel developers.
During the coronavirus shutdown, the Trump administration is using the opportunity to drive forward full speed ahead with regulatory rollbacks at EPA to benefit allies in the fossil fuel industry. These changes have long been a priority for the Republican party, but not things that most average people might support if they knew about them.
Among these changes is the administration’s so-called “secret science” rule. It would benefit polluters by making it nearly impossible for EPA to use public health studies based on confidential patient information to justify the creation of stronger air pollution control regulations.
“No one would argue that you want science to be peer-reviewed and be replicable, to the extent possible,” Meiburg said. “But it is also true that you would never be able to conduct many medical studies -- especially longitudinal, epidemiological studies -- unless you had people who were given some assurance that their own personal health characteristics would be kept confidential.”
That confidentiality could be stripped by the Trump “secret science” rule (which the administration formally calls its “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” regulation.)
Bill Alley is veteran groundwater scientist, formerly with the U.S. Geological Service, and author of a new book, titled, “The War on the EPA.” It’s about the Trump Administration’s ongoing campaign against environmental and public health regulations.
Alley said it is wrong that the administration is using the coronavirus shutdown – when people can’t even attend public hearings to protest – to push through, for example, a proposed weakening of federal mercury pollution control rules. The administration is also rolling back fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
“The auto manufacturers – they are arguing against rolling all of this back,” Alley said. “They’d rather negotiate with EPA, as they have in the past, because they are stuck here with a regulation that could be overturned. And they are also stuck with not knowing what’s going to happen with the California waiver (a federal policy that has traditionally allowed California and allied states to follow air pollution control rules that are more strict than the federal regulations.) So the rollbacks increases tremendous the uncertainty for them.”
President Trump’s prescription for economic recovery certainly will not cure COVID19. But it may lead to more deaths from air pollution and worsen the fever burning our global climate.