5 Areas Where Changes to Environmental Laws May Affect Climate & Health

By path2positive

During the Thanksgiving holiday, you may have had a chance to discuss climate change and the recent elections at gatherings with family and friends (or avoided it to keep the peace).

Now that we’re getting back to work, we do have to communicate with our patients and peers about how all the recent news relates to health, and what to do about it. That can be challenging, because it’s hard to stay abreast of all the headlines and make sense of what they might imply.

In particular, climate and health leaders will need to pay attention to the status of environmental protection laws under the new President. Donald J. Trump has said that during his first 100 days in office, he intends to ease or remove regulations the Obama Administration put in place to clean up fossil-fuel energy production and protect environment and health. According to an article by Marianne Lavelle in the Pultizer Prize-winning news site Inside Climate News (ICN), at least nine such rules could be affected. 

If environmental protection laws are weakened or eliminated, that could lead to more health problems linked to fossil-fuel related pollution of our air, water, and land, or from occupational exposures in the oil and gas industries.

Regulation Cheat Sheet

Following are summaries of some of the existing rules that the new President or Congress may try to revoke or change, and their connections to climate and health.

1. Carbon Emissions

The Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s key 2014 initiative to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired powered plants, sets state-by-state targets for reducing emissions and moving to cleaner forms of energy by 2030.

Climate/health connections: Besides being one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, coal plants emit 84 of the 187 hazardous air pollutants identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These pollutants include mercury, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. Health conditions linked to coal burning include cancer, heart disease, and many respiratory ailments.

2. Methane Emissions

Several recent methane regulations might be eliminated or loosened under the new administration. The EPA last spring created two new methane rules. The first rule is for new facilities and requires energy companies to monitor methane leaks and maintain facilities to help prevent these leaks. The second rule will regulate methane leaks at existing facilities. Also at risk of reversal is the Interior Department’s recent (Nov. 15) Methane and Waste Prevention Rule to curb venting, flaring and leaks of natural gas (which is mostly methane).

Climate/health connections: Besides being a powerful greenhouse gas, methane is highly explosive. Close exposure is associated with symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and dizziness. Flaring of methane on oil fields creates additional air pollution and fire risk.

3. Coal Waste

The EPA’s coal ash regulations, finalized in October 2015, require safer disposal of coal ash, a byproduct from burning coal.

Climate/health connections: Coal ash contains mercury and heavy metals and can get into air, land, and water. Exposure can lead to illnesses including cancer and neurological problems.

4. Water Pollution

The Waters of the U.S. rule clarifies the rules protecting streams and wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act. Among other things, it affects fracking for oil and gas because it gives the federal government more control over industrial activities near or through bodies of water.

Climate/health connections: Among other things, spills of fracking chemicals and wastewater – which can contain radioactive substances – may pollute land or water and lead to health problems. Conversely, healthy streams and wetlands help ensure clean water downstream. Also, wetlands help moderate flooding, which we are seeing more of under climate change; floods can carry water-borne diseases and displace communities.

The Interior Department’s blowout prevention rules, which were developed after the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, are designed to make the offshore drilling industry safer.

Climate/health connections: Water pollution from both oil spills and the chemicals used in cleanup can harm people in shoreline communities. Spills kill fish and other sea life, compromising the food supply. Oil-rig accidents can injure or kill workers.

5. Fracking Pollutants

Regulations covering hydraulic fracturing on federal and tribal lands were designed to make fracking safer by requiring energy companies to say which chemicals they are using, among several other safeguards.

Climate/health connections: See Waters of the U.S. rule, above. In addition, it is hard to know how to diagnose and treat symptoms that may be related to fracking if the chemicals used are unknown.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Department’s crystalline silica exposure rules were designed to protect oil and gas workers from the effects of unsafe levels of dust created by the use of large amounts of sand in the fracking process.

Climate/health connections: Silica exposure is linked to lung cancer, chronic respiratory disease, and kidney disease.

Will It Happen?

How likely the president-elect and his chosen agency heads are to succeed in changing the rules depends on a few things, including how recently a regulation was passed and whether it is already being challenged in court. (The Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the U.S. rule, and the regulations on fracking on federal lands are currently tied up in litigation.)

The bad news, according to regulatory experts ICN interviewed:

“Under an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act, Congress could review and override recent major regulations by a simple majority vote…. any regulation finalized after May 30 could be subject to Congressional override….A Congressional override of a rule would have long-lasting consequences; the agency would be prohibited from enacting a similar regulation again in the future.”

The good news:

“To undo a regulation that has been finalized, the Trump administration would have to begin a public notice and comment period all over again, address those comments and publish an analysis to support its decision…. It is a process that often takes years. The administration would face lawsuits by environmental and public health groups as well as states and industry groups….And the Trump administration also could face litigation for any failure to regulate.”

Ultimately, while many rules can’t be instantly undone by executive order, the President can cut agency budgets, limit enforcement, and stop defending regulations such as the Clean Power Plan against ongoing legal challenges.

What You Can Do

Ultimately, what happens is partly up to us. As ecoAmerica president Bob Perkowitz noted recently, “The next few weeks and months will have monumental impact on climate change and…each of us [needs to] maximize our effectiveness during this key period.”

We will need to mobilize if our new President acts on his energy-related pledges. To maintain safeguards on the climate and our health, health professionals will need to correspond and meet with government leaders at every level in a constructive way – especially state representatives, because states can create and enforce environmental standards stronger than those the Federal Government requires. Such an approach worked for the Blackfeet tribe of Montana, whose negotiations with federal and state leaders and a private energy company led last week to the cancellation of gas leases on land that is sacred to the Blackfeet.  

Constructive engagement was one of the topics of a conference call ecoAmerica held November 29. “Protecting Climate Progress: A Way Forward” was attended by more than 200 professionals.  Speakers including Perkowitz; Georges Benjamin, Executive Director, American Public Health Association; Jackie Dupont Walker, Director, Social Action Commission, African Methodist Episcopal Church; Jonathan Voss, Vice President, Lake Research Partners; and Joe Romm, Editor, Climate Progress. The discussion encompassed the implications of the recent election and laid out strategies to help galvanize our leadership and collective progress on climate solutions.  A summary of the meeting is available here.


Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact her at miranda@ecoamerica.org.


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