What’s Ahead for Environmental Law in the Trump Administration

Pause the summer internship applications, the readings due in class tomorrow, the dinners planned with friends. Today, Professors Jody Freeman and Richard Lazarus of Harvard Law School gave a talk on “What’s Ahead for Environmental Law in the Trump Administration.”

As I made my way to Wasserstein Hall in the late afternoon, I constantly checked my phone for updates regarding a bomb threat issued a few moments before. I happened to walk through the scene of investigation, a parking lot of a Harvard lab. There was a K9 unit and several unmarked black SUVs. I wondered, “What has come of this world?” as I continued along to HLS

The next hour and a half left me speechless. Firstly, Freeman and Lazarus did a tag-team format of a talk and they couldn’t have been a better pair. While much of the discussion was technical and some terminology quite unfamiliar, they swept us through the various acts, rules, and laws that were relevant or in danger of being eradicated. The most striking slide was titled “What’s at Stake.” On it, the many potentially endangered environmental policies were listed. It read something like this:

  1. Withdraw from the Paris Agreement
  2. Withdraw from UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
  3. Refuse to Defend Clean Power Plan in litigation
  4. Rescind Clean Power Plan
  5. Weaken CAFE/GHG Standards
  6. Suspend/delay methane rules for existing sources
  7. Revise CAA Mercury Clean Air Act Rule
  8. Rescind/narrow EPA/Corps jurisdiction over waters of the US
  9. Rescind Interior’s weaken stream protection rule
  10. Reverse Interior’s “pause” on new coal leasing
  11. Reverse BLM’s regulation hydraulic fracturing on public lands
  12. Rescind & weaken BLM methane standards for new oil & gas sources on public and private lands
  13. Approve Keystone XL & Dakota pipelines
  14. Reverse OCSLA withdrawals
  15. Reverse/narrow National Monument Designations

It was a breathless moment – to be hit with the full extent of what Trump’s administration could affect. Through position nominations, litigation, or even reckless tweeting, the trajectory of our world as we know it could be irreversibly impacted.

But not all is terrible, despite how dire everything may appear. The executive orders and presidential memoranda are always going to be limited “to the extent permitted by law.” Trump cannot, in fact, abolish the EPA, though he can do things that distort the inner functionality of the EPA to the point of essential destruction. And while the Congressional safety net is no longer as strong as it usually is, or as strong as we may hope it to be, there are still interest groups and involved, well-funded donors who will step up when necessary.

But Freeman and Lazarus maintained their caution throughout. They stressed that we should not be distracted by the shiny things that were flying out of the White House every other hour, shiny things not grounded in practicality or reality. We should be attentive to everything, not just the things that catch media attention. The less publicized nominees can have just as significant an impact on the inner workings of government. Science research funding may be at risk and agencies like NASA, NOAA, and NSF may suffer from decreased government support and funds. All around, there’s a lot that has and can still go wrong.

Finally, though, they left us with a bit more optimism, discussing the different sorts of things we can do. The talk was aimed at Harvard Law School students, but it could also be generalized to all people. To study as hard as possible and to be the best in what we did. Be as effective at your work as possible. That we should get involved in whatever capacity we could or were able to – public service, pro bono work, interest groups, private industry – it was all needed. In a final plea, Freeman urged students to be the best they could be. That by virtue of attending Harvard, we were already considered part of the “elite” and that it would stick with us for the rest of our lives. However, we may as well “be an excellent elitist,” no?


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