Over the past four years, reporter Reid Frazier has been hosting a podcast called “Trump on Earth” to discuss the environmental policy changes pursued by President Donald Trump’s administration. That’s on top of regional energy reporting he has been doing for StateImpact Pennsylvania and The Allegheny Front.
We spoke to Frazier about the upcoming presidential election and what is at stake for environmental policy here in Southwestern Pennsylvania and across the broader region. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve talked to scientists, activists, reporters, politicians and so many others over the past few years. What conversation stands out to you the most, when you think about the impact of Trump’s presidency on the environment?
The first interview we did for the podcast. It was with a legal scholar who worked in the Obama administration and is now at Harvard: Jody Freeman. She pointed out that what presidents do with environmental regulations can be quickly undone by the next administration. Whereas in the longer term, laws are really where it’s at if you want to make long-term, permanent impact.
A great example is the Clean Air Act, just because we all deal with air pollution in Pittsburgh. That [legislation] has had and continues to have a big impact on air quality and what industries have to do to stay within the law.
So understanding that presidents come and go but the Clean Air Act is forever. That's not to say that regulations don't really matter because they do. If a new regulation is passed that bans a certain type of coal burning without technology to make it cleaner, and it withstands review, that has huge impacts for the coal industry.
Q: I remember hearing early on in Trump’s presidency that his environmental regulations were getting challenged in court and some even tossed out. So what has been the overall impact of his efforts?
A lot of Trump's deregulatory impulses have been thrown out of court because they were fairly clumsy In their execution or implementation.
It’s like the census question where Trump was trying to get a citizenship question added to the census. The judges found that their stated reasons for putting it on conflicted with the obvious reasons for having it on the ballot — to depress undocumented immigrant participation in the census. Most of his regulations have gone through public comment and are in the litigation phase.
What we don’t know yet: Trump has named hundreds of federal judges and a third of the Supreme Court. We don’t know how they will rule when these cases come up in the next four years.
Q: That's on the assumption that Trump were to win a second term, right? Because presumably If Biden were to win, they would rescind the regulations.
Yeah, I can’t imagine a Biden presidency trying to win a case for the rollbacks. However, Trump rewrote a lot of the rules, so a potential Biden administration would have to rewrite the rules, and that takes thousands of hours of legal work and scientific study. So, basically we’d have to start the process all over again.
Q: There was a climate change question in both presidential debates and in the vice presidential debate. Were you surprised?
With the overall coverage of these hurricanes and wildfires, it’s become more normal to talk about the impact of climate change. It’s something most Americans are starting to be concerned about. It’s obviously not as high as COVID-19 or the economy but it’s starting to rise.
Especially for young people. Young people feel that it’s an issue they’re going to have to contend with the rest of their lives. Even if you don’t want to do anything about it, voters would like to know that fact and it’s a pretty salient fact when you’re going out to vote.
Q: What’s Trump’s plan for the environment if he’s elected again?
It’s more of the same. His whole theory of the case is that — if I were to play the role of his advocate in this case — is that American business can figure out the best way to keep our air and water clean if we just take the shackles off these industries and allow them to function profitably.
They describe these regulations as duplicative or unnecessary — essentially that it’s just a bunch of paperwork that these companies shouldn’t have to fill out. You make them jump through these hoops, but it doesn’t really change how clean the air is or how clean the water is. That’s been their argument.
So, I think another four years would be more of the same deregulatory approach. They’ve been repealing back rules that companies have already complied with. For instance, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards was created by the Obama administration in 2015, and coal companies had already metabolized this rule and put on expensive new pollution controls. The Trump administration rolled the whole thing back.
Q: What do we know about Biden’s environmental record? Does he have a history of supporting environmental causes?
Among the Democratic candidates, among the 20+ candidates, he was among the most conservative in terms of climate change. He had a much more modest climate proposal that he was putting out in the beginning. He received an F from the Sunrise Movement, even though his proposal was, by that point, stronger than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.
But it’s undergone a big change since then. They had a unity task force with the Bernie’s [Sanders] people after the primary season ended, and he really did make a much stronger commitment to dealing with climate change if he were to be elected. So he was obviously not the choice of the left wing of the party, but I think he enjoys a broad base within the Democratic Party, and he has moved left on climate change since the primary season.
Q: What do we know about Joe Biden’s environmental plans if he’s elected?
The obvious one is: Get the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Accord.
It all depends on what kind of Senate he inherits. If the Democrats control the Senate, he would have a better chance of doing more aggressive things on climate change. His $2 trillion plan is a lot of money. And it could really push more renewable energy onto the grid.
He could also get the country back onto more stringent auto emission standards. And revamp the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s attempt to cut pollution from the electric sector. There almost certainly would be pressure to do more than what the Obama administration did. A lot of people saw those as first steps but by no means adequate to address the totality of climate change going forward.
So, are you gonna ask about fracking?
Q: Sure! What do you think of their stances? In terms of their environmental impact, one, and then secondarily, their political impact?
It seems clear that Biden does not want to ban fracking, nor could he. He would essentially ban fracking on public lands, and that includes a lot of land out West in New Mexico and Texas. But in Pennsylvania, 99% of it is done on private or state land.
So he couldn’t, really. A president can’t just ban fracking. You’d need to pass a law in Congress changing the regulations for oil and gas extraction.
He doesn’t really need to ban fracking to move on climate change. Instead of banning it, his approach is to add more renewables: wind and solar and battery storage and energy efficiency. All these things could really eat into the need for all this natural gas and coal we need.
The conventional wisdom is that you would lose Pennsylvania if you have an anti-fracking Democratic candidate. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s pretty clear that Joe Biden thinks that’s true. I also think Biden wants to attract some of the folks who benefit from fracking, such as the trade unions in Western Pennsylvania. The oil and gas industry here has made alliances with trade unions and labor unions on big projects such as Shell’s ethane cracker plant. And those are natural political allies that Joe Biden does not want to alienate.
Q: One of Trump’s claims is that the air is cleaner than it's ever been. Is that true?
[Mimicking Trump’s voice] “Crystal clean air.”
In a way, Trump is correct. Our air quality improves year after year, but that’s really because of laws that were passed in the 1970s and 1990s that the EPA has steadily implemented over the years.
One great example of that is sulfur dioxide levels have really plummeted in recent years because of the Clean Air Act and the amendments of 1990 in particular. As those have been implemented and fought over and eventually approved in court, cars have had to become cleaner. And yes, the air has definitely gotten cleaner.
It’s hard to make the case it’s because of what Trump did. In some cases, we’re seeing pollution levels going up, such as ozone levels, because of global warming. Ozone is created in the atmosphere, and it’s created more easily when it’s hot, over 85 degrees, and there’s a lot more of these days than there used to be.
Nor would I blame Trump for climate change. It’s a phenomenon that is borne out over decades. It’s like turning around an ocean freighter. No one regulation will change the environment all that quickly. The accumulation of all these cleaner technologies and procedures means we have cleaner air.
Q: If Trump is re-elected—what is the path forward for environmental progress?
I’ve asked this question to a lot of people and I think the answer is two-fold. States will have a lot more say or impact on issues like climate change. There is no substitution for federal action on an issue, but states can become more active in trying to make their grids more renewable or getting to net zero carbon emissions by a certain year.
An interesting thought is that if Trump were to secure reelection, maybe other countries will pressure the U.S. into doing something on climate change. You could have American goods taxed higher because we don’t deal with climate change.
There is a chance that you’ll see an acceleration of the shareholder movement to put pressure on banks or oil majors to transition. I don’t know how effective they could be, but we are seeing a real realignment in American finance. Where it used to be the oil companies used to be a quarter of the S&P 500 and now they are like 2% and ExxonMobil just got kicked off the Dow [Jones Industrial Average].
Q: What has four years looking at federal policy done shaping your outlook as a local reporter?
It’s made me see more clearly how essential state regulation is. A lot of times the administration will put out a federal regulation, say, coal ash pollution — then we get a new president and the regulation changes.
If you have a stronger state regulation on coal ash pollution in Pennsylvania, it doesn’t really matter who is president: You would have the regulation that the legislature and governor see as more appropriate. Who is in the governor’s mansion and the state house really does matter for a lot of this stuff.
Q: Do you think any of the changes from the COVID pandemic might last and impact the environment?
I think there is a possibility that the kinds of sacrifices we’ve all had to make to deal with this pandemic and not have it go out of control — just the idea of having to sacrifice for something that will protect other people and ourselves — that has the possibility of imprinting on people alive today, especially young people. I have teenagers. They have normalized mask-wearing very quickly, a lot quicker than a lot of older people I know.
So it’s a very similar type of problem. You can’t just protect yourself from COVID. Even if you wear a mask, you can still get it. But if everyone wears a mask, the chances we all get it goes way down. It’s a distant pay off that’s similar to what’s needed for climate change.