Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Courts have Stymied the Trump Administration's Agenda

Private organizations and state governments have successfully leveraged the courts to check the Trump administration's anti-environment, pro-fossil fuel agenda. Many environmental groups and state attorney Generals are suing the Trump administration over environmental rollbacks. The New York state attorney general has launched 17 lawsuits against the Trump administration's agenda, and Washington state’s attorney general has launched 19 similar lawsuits, California leads the pack having sued Trump more than 50 times.

In recent days the U.S. Supreme court has ruled against president Trump on a number of key fronts. This includes protecting LGBT rights in the workplace, preventing the administration from deporting undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children and blocking a controversial Louisiana law that denied women access to abortions. The court refused to hear the Trump administration’s challenge to a California sanctuary law, upholding the prohibition on local law enforcement officials helping federal agents take custody of migrants. The court also declined to consider cases that might expand the rights of gun owners. The Supreme Court is currently debating Trump's right to ignore a Congressional subpoena and continue to conceal his tax returns and other financial information.

Lower courts have denied requests by Trump's legal council to block the publication of books that paint unflattering pictures of Trump. A federal judge denied the Trump administration's attempt to block the upcoming publication of a book by former national security adviser John Bolton and a judge in the Queens County Surrogate Court in New York dismissed a motion by Trump's brother to block a tell-all book by President's niece titled of "Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man". The book by Trump's niece Mary L. Trump PH.D. was then blocked by the New York Supreme Court on June 30th. On July 1, the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division lifted the temporary restraint clearing the way Simon & Schuster to publish the book. 

Concerns about the utter lack of impartiality of Trump's Justice Department make the courts even more important. Trump has been associated with four shady lawyers, but none have done more to undermine the equitable application of justice in the United States than William Barr, Trump's pick for Attorney General. Under Barr the Justice Department is being purged of people who are involved with investigating Trump's criminal malfeasance. Most recently the president and Barr fired the district attorney for southern New York who was overseeing a campaign finance violation case against Trump.

It is no secret that the Trump administration actively supports the fossil fuel industry and undermines renewable energy. This has led many to conclude that Trump and Republican lawmakers are beholden to the fossil fuel industry.

There have been hundreds of legal challenges even though states are working to protect the fossil fuel industry. Trump's support of for oil, gas and coal is being checked by the courts.. While political efforts have failed to reign-in this president legal challenges have succeeded in blocking Trump's efforts to expand fossil fuels.

The courts checked former administrator Scott Pruitt's fossil fuel powered vision for the EPA. In 2017 Trump overturned a ban on seismic survey as he prepared to allow drilling for oil and gas along the U.S. east coast. However, in March, 2019 the courts ruled that executive order exceeded Trump exceeded his authority. State attorney generals are pushing back against the administrations opening coastal waters for off-shore drilling. Early this year New Jersey and other state attorney generals sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stating their opposition to the Trump administration's plan to expand offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters. Plans to drill for offshore oil in the Atlantic are now on hold pending appeals.

In December 2018 a federal district judge in Montana halted TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline citing an insufficient review of the project's environmental impact and ordering the Trump administration to conduct a more thorough review. In his ruling, Judge Brian Morris said "the Trump administration completely disregarded the climate effects of building the Keystone pipeline".

At the start of 2019 the US Supreme Court denied a motion to kill a lawsuit against ExxonMobil. The court has refused to hear ExxonMobil’s bid to prevent Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey from investigating whether the oil giant covered up its knowledge about the role its products have played in warming the planet (Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Healey). A Massachusetts Superior Court judge had ruled in 2017 that ExxonMobil must turn over 40 years of documents on climate change. The company appealed but the state Supreme Judicial Court upheld the lower court’s order in 2018.

In early May 2020 a Federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to consider risks to Montana’s environment and water supply in handing out oil and gas leases in 2017 and 2018. This ruling vacates 287 oil and gas leases on 145,063 acres of Montana Public Lands. This ruling protects local groundwater and the climate. Also in May a federal judge sided with environmental groups, requiring that new oil and gas pipelines must undergo a lengthy permitting and regulation process in order to build across bodies of water.

Later in the same month the U.S. District Court in Montana struck down the basis for Trump administration's massive oil and gas leasing plans. The ruling ends the administration's Sage-grouse Directive which effectively cancels hundreds of oil and gas leases on public lands. The ruling stops the Trump administration's attempt to gut a key part of the BLM’s 2015 sage grouse and protects more than a million acres of habitat.

On March 25, a federal judge struck down federal permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) citing the risks of pipeline spills. This ruling validates the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The Court found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it affirmed federal permits for the pipeline. On July 6 the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia shut down DAPL pending an environmental review consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act requirements. On July 7 the Supreme Court allowed some pipeline projects to fast-track their permitting process but excluded the controversial Keystone XL expansion marking the first time a major, in-service oil pipeline will be forced to shutter because of environmental concerns.

However, there have also been a lot of less conspicuous losses. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and its allies have used the courts to successfully challenge climate-friendly policies in at least 16 different states. The Trump administration has given key jobs to fossil fuel advocates in the EPA, the Department of Interior and Energy. In February Trump tapped oil industry defender Jeffrey Bossert Clark to lead enforcement of environmental regulations. As head of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division Clark is responsible for overseeing compliance with important environmental protections including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Trump began targeting the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule on the campaign trail. Shortly after being inaugurated he signed an Executive Order to dismantle the Clean Water rule. Pruitt formally suspended the rule in 2018 and this was followed by a plethora of court challenges by state governments. In February 2020 New Jersey joined nine other states in suing the EPA over the federal agency's suspension of the Clean Water Rule. The legal challenge is being led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

On April 23, 2020, the Supreme Court sided with clean water advocates in the case of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund. In May, California, along with eight other states launched a lawsuit suing Trump's EPA for suspending environmental regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic. In June Washington, D.C., sued oil companies ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell over climate change. Also in June, Minnesota launched a lawsuit against Exxon and Koch Industries for "a 30 year campaign of deception".

This story was updated on July 2 to reflect the New York State Supreme Court decision to lift the temporary restraint the prevented the publishing of the book by Trump's niece titled "Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man".  It was also updated on July 6 to include the District of Columbia's DAPL ruling and on July 7 to include the Supreme Court pipeline permitting process ruling.

Related
The Trump Administration is Racking Up a String of Environmental Losses in Court
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