Billionaire-Funded Think Tanks Call for Pandemic Deregulation to Be Permanent

The reactionary right-wing juggernaut has quickly seized upon the coronavirus pandemic to accelerate its anti-government agenda. Every citizen’s right to protest has been curtailed, massive amounts of industrial pollution have been deregulated and crucial rules governing Wall Street have been canceled.

Two billionaire-funded think tanks — the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Heritage Foundation — have issued reports saying that the pandemic justifies permanent deregulation of corporations and shrinking of government. Heritage says, “the pandemic has underscored the economic and opportunity costs of overregulation and the folly of looking to Washington, rather than to our robust civil society, for solutions to our most pressing problems.” Mercatus proposes that all regulations suspended or modified during the pandemic should “remain in suspension” until a special commission set up by the Trump administration could “plausibly demonstrate” that they served a legitimate public purpose.

Marching in lockstep since mid-March, using the coronavirus as cover, the Trump administration has been working overtime to shrink and weaken government, quietly eliminating important regulations as fast as possible. In a White House speech on July 16, the president bragged about his anti-government blitzkrieg, calling it “the most dramatic regulatory relief campaign in American history.”

In late March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), now headed by former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, announced it was drastically relaxing reporting requirements for toxic industrial pollution, allowing companies to monitor themselves. The agency also said it will no longer issue fines for certain violations of monitoring and reporting requirements.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called the move “an open license to pollute.” Cynthia Giles, a former head of EPA’s enforcement division, said, “It is so far beyond any reasonable response I am stunned.” The rollback will inflict the most harm on communities of color, where toxic emitters are disproportionately clustered — as has been well known for more than 30 years.

On March 31, the EPA gutted automobile pollution standards, which will increase U.S. global-heating emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) by more than a billion tons per year far into the future, as calculated by the Environmental Defense Fund. Until this rollback, U.S. automobile pollution controls had been “the biggest single step any nation has taken to fight the climate crisis,” according to progressive consumer protection activist and former Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader’s Center for Auto Safety. The EPA proudly proclaimed it “the largest deregulatory initiative of this administration.”

In mid-June, Wheeler announced that the EPA was eliminating another Obama-era regulation, which required oil, gas and pipeline companies to detect and fix leaks of methane, a powerful global-heating gas. Methane stays in the atmosphere a shorter time than CO2, the other major global-heating agent, but it does much more harm during its shorter life. In its first 20 years in the air, methane causes more than 80 times as much heating as an equivalent amount of CO2.

Together, the revised car pollution rule and the methane rollback cap Trump’s crusade to derail U.S. plans to fight climate change, which has so far included pulling the U.S. out of the global Paris climate change accord, weakening rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired electric plants, and undermining the basic science that underpins environmental regulations.

At the end of April, Trump’s Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management Brian Steed, announced new plans to invite gas, oil, coal and timber companies to explore and mine hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in the Western states, some within a half mile of national parks. Steed is on record favoring the large-scale transfer of public lands into private hands.

The Department of Energy then announced plans to “revitalize” the uranium industry by opening public lands to exploration and mining. Both Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona have significant uranium deposits, which will be targeted.

On June 1, Trump’s EPA issued a rule limiting the power of states and tribes to oppose gas, oil and coal projects within their borders. Specifically, states and tribes are no longer allowed to consider climate impacts of fossil fuel projects.

In early June, the Trump administration proposed a new federal law prescribing up to 20 years in prison for anyone “inhibiting the operation” of an oil or gas pipeline or conspiring to do so. Merely training would-be protesters in nonviolent resistance could become a crime. Anti-pipeline activists are the front line of the U.S. movement to curb global warming. Twelve states are now in various stages of enacting laws criminalizing pipeline protests.

The fossil fuel industry faces a declining future as solar and wind power expand, so they are racing to install new power plants and pipelines financed by Wall Street, hoping the financiers will use their political clout to protect their fossil fuel investments by stalling solar and wind. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) originally wrote the model bill on which the anti-protest laws are based. ALEC is a shadowy, billionaire-funded group that invites industry lobbyists to write legislation, which ALEC then promotes in state legislatures.

On June 4, Trump issued an executive order negating the basic requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the nation’s bedrock environment-protection law. Until Trump’s order, the Act required thorough investigation of all environmental and human health impacts of all significant federal expenditures, plus examination of all reasonable alternatives.

Now large projects can proceed without analyzing their effects on the natural world or human health. Again, the major victims of this executive order will be Indigenous people, communities of color and low-income residents, which have historically relied on NEPA investigations to reveal disproportionate harm from toxic emissions.

That same June day, Wheeler proposed a major change in the way the EPA justifies regulations. In the past, the agency has balanced costs vs. benefits of every new rule or regulation. In this balancing, benefits have always included co-benefits; for example, a proposal to curb mercury emissions from a coal power plant might also reduce asthma by cutting soot emissions, so reduced asthma would be counted as a co-benefit of the mercury regulation.

No more.

Wheeler said co-benefits will still be calculated but they will no longer count in the cost-benefit balancing. Naturally, this thumb-on-the-scale change will make it much harder – in many cases impossible – to justify pollution regulations. Wheeler said this year’s proposal only applies to the Clean Air Act, but in the next three years, he hopes to apply the skewed cost-benefit technique to all decisions involving water, land and chemicals.

On June 9, Trump eased restrictions on hunting baby bears and wolf pups on federal reserve lands in Alaska, including Denali, Katmai and Gates of the Arctic. The new rule will likely reduce the populations of large predators, thereby increasing the numbers of caribou, moose and other game animals that sport hunters, like Donald Trump, Jr., enjoy killing. The new rule also allows hunters to shoot swimming caribou from boats and shoot wolves and other animals from aircraft.

On July 15, The New York Times listed 100 environmental regulations that the Trump administration has reversed. But, of course, environmental regulations are not the only government protections being trashed by reactionary Republicans.

On June 26, bank stocks jumped up as U.S. regulators voted to gut the Volcker Rule. The Wall Street Journal said the vote handed “Wall Street one of its biggest wins of the Trump administration.” The Volcker Rule was intended to protect bank customers by preventing banks from making certain types of speculative investments, such as venture capital and securitized loans, which contributed substantially to the 2008 financial collapse.

In addition, the regulators voted to eliminate a requirement that banks set aside a certain amount of capital to cushion against trading losses, thus freeing up tens of millions of dollars for banks to invest.

In early July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) formally rescinded a plan to crack down on the payday lending industry, which annually makes $30 billion in short-term, high-interest loans that can leave borrowers trapped in cycles of debt. As The Washington Post recently put it, “The CFPB once defended consumers. Thanks to Trump, it now helps companies prey on them instead.”

If Democrats win the White House and the Senate on November 3, they can easily overturn any of Trump’s rule changes that were finalized after June 1. A little-known law called the Congressional Review Act gives Congress the power to reverse any regulation finalized within 60 legislative days of the end of a presidential term, by a simple majority vote, and the vote is not subject to filibuster or any other Senate rules that could block it. Regulations that Trump rolled back prior to June would take longer to reinstate. Joe Biden recently said, “We’re going to reverse Trump’s rollbacks of 100 public health and environmental rules and then forge a path to greater ambition,” but it remains to be seen whether this will come to fruition.