The Environment Under a Trump Presidency: Looking Ahead By Looking Back to the Reagan Administration

The Environment Under a Trump Presidency: Looking Ahead By Looking Back to the Reagan Administration

By Gary Dreyzin, Staff Contributor

The upcoming Trump administration has given rise to new concerns about potential changes in environmental policies.[1] In light of the president-elect’s known opposition to climate change and environmental regulation, environmentalists and people that acknowledge the existence of manmade climate change have much to fear. We find ourselves asking questions: How drastic will the administration’s proposed changes be? Will any of the progress achieved thus far survive the next four years? However, despite the ominous predictions, looking back to the environmental agendas of past administrations may provide a clearer picture of what lies ahead.

In the past few decades, every United States President has tried to control environmental regulations. During the infancy of environmental regulations, President Nixon set up an advisory council to represent industry’s interests and concerns with air and water regulations.[2] President Ford created reviews called “inflationary impact statements” for new regulations. President Carter removed those reviews and established a regulatory council for regulations with major economic impacts.[3] Finally, there was President Reagan, who made larger changes than his predecessors. In fact, Reagan’s campaign platform included a decentralized environmental enforcement sector that eliminated many pollution control regulations.[4] Examining President Reagan’s proposals for environmental regulation and how his plans were executed will serve as a perspective for comparison to the incoming Trump administration.

When President Reagan was entering office, environmentalists were scared. An article critical of the upcoming administration began: “the environmental movement has had a nightmare and awakened to find it true: Ronald Reagan is President elect and the Senate is in Republicans Hands.”[5] In years preceding presidency, Reagan voiced many opinions that concerned environmentalists. He was critical of the ban on the chemical DDT; defended the baby seal killing program; complained that too much forest was protected from the timber industry; supported the Sagebrush rebellion and the private ownership of many public lands; wanted to increase available lands for oil exploration; and said that at its best, energy conservation will help us “run out of energy a little more slowly.”[6] Many environmentalists were even concerned with the pollution ceilings in the Clean Air Act.[7]

To a large extent, the environmentalists’ concerns with the Reagan administration were valid. Once in office, President Reagan surrounded himself with those that were loyal and committed ideologically to conservatism.[8] Almost 3,000 EPA employees left in the first two years of Reagan’s administration, and 2,618 positions were eliminated from EPA.[9] The policy team was headed by individuals who were put in charge of programs they opposed, and President Reagan recruited other officials from the private sector.[10] President Reagan slashed the budget from the 2.4% of federal spending in 1980 to 1.5% in 1983.[11] Many states followed the federal lead and reduced environmental enforcement of regulations.[12] Agency actions were strengthened though the “Chevron Revolution” in courts that granted deference to agency interpretations and actions.[13] Finally, many of the President Reagan’s judicial appointees to federal district and circuit courts were more likely to narrow the application of existing requirements or discourage new obligations under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.[14]

On the other hand, many of the long-term fears did not actualize. Although there was substantial rhetoric around loosening requirements under the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and President Reagan made proposals to amend environmental statutes, none of those proposals were enacted.[15] Most of the agency changes did not result in lasting policy changes.[16] A significant number of the coal and oil exploration programs proposed were tied up in court during Reagan’s presidency, and the Department of Interior was facing around 4000 lawsuits by 1983.[17] Furthermore, Reagan even surprised environmentalists by taking an active role in ozone protection after doing a cost-benefit analysis.[18]

Many of these changes sound similar to proposals President-elect Trump made during his campaign. Similar to Reagan’s budgetary cuts, people expect that EPA resources will be greatly reduced.[19] Trump has even tasked Myron Ebell to lead the EPA transition team knowing that that Ebell does not believe in climate change, is against the recent Clean Power Plan and Paris Agreement, and has spent some time in his professional career trying to minimize regulations under the Endangered Species Act.[20] It is likely that many of the people Trump brings in will be similar to those Reagan brought: individuals against EPA policies or individuals from industry. Additionally, many of Trump’s current candidates for Supreme Court would likely narrow the application of federal environmental laws.[21] His other federal court appointments are not likely to be different. Just as Reagan was environmentalists’ worst nightmare, contemporary environmentalists are gravely concerned about the potential changes that may occur under the Trump administration.[22]

Therefore, when the environmental community asks itself what will happen in the next four years, it is likely to find an answer similar to what happened during the Reagan administration. Many jobs at EPA will be eliminated, the regulatory standards will be narrowed, and there will be an influx of conservative judges. But in response, environmentalists will take their fights to the courts to slow down the changes, and the core environmental statutes will survive. This is not to make light of effects of the upcoming changes; people’s health and safety suffer when environmental regulations loosen. Nevertheless, we should stop asking ourselves what impact the Trump administration will have on the environment and instead start asking how we can get out of this cycle of adversarial regulation followed by adversarial deregulation. We as a country need to find a way to come together and make sustainable progress for own sake and for future generations.

[1] See Juan Carlos Rodriguez, Environmental Enforcement Under Trump: 5 Open Questions, Law360 (Nov. 10, 2016),

[2] Michael E. Kraft & Norman J. Vig, Environmental Policy in the Reagan Presidency, 99:3 Pol. Sci. Quart. 415, 417 (1984).

[3] Id.

[4] Robert R. Kuehn, The Limits of Devolving Enforcement of Federal Environmental Laws, 70 Tul. L. Rev. 2373, 2385 (1994-95).

[5] Constance Holden, The Reagan Years: Environmentalists Tremble, 210 Sci. 988, 988 (1980).

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 989.

[8] Kraft & Vig, supra note 2 at 427.

[9] Id. at 428.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 431.

[12] Kuehn, supra note 4 at 2839.

[13] See William N. Eskrige Jr. & Lauren E. Baer, The Continium of Deference: Supreme Court Treatment of Agency Statutory Interpretations From Chevron to Hamdan, 96 Geo. L. J. 1083, 1087 (2008).

[14] William E. Kovcic, The Reagan Judiciary and Environmental Policy, 18 B.C. Envtl. Aff. L. Rev. 669, 672 (1990-91).

[15] Id. at 675.

[16] Id.

[17] Kraft & Vig, supra note 2 at 434.

[18] Cass R. Sunstein, Climate Change: Lessons from Ronald Reagan, N.Y. Times, Nov. 10, 2012,

[19] Rodgriguez, supra note 1.

[20] Dominique Mosbegen, 11 Reasons Why Trump’s Climate-Denying EPA Guy Could Spell Disaster for the Environment, Huffington Post (Nov. 15, 2016),

[21] Tom Steyer & Michal Keegan, With the Supreme Court at Stake, This Election Could Determine the Future of Our Environment, The Nation (Nov. 2, 2016),

[22] See Trip Van Noppen, Earthjustice Statement on President Elect-Trump, Earthjustice (Nov. 9, 2016),