Environmental activists have gone from being the government’s closest allies to being nonstop litigants in just four months, filing lawsuits on a weekly basis challenging virtually every move the Trump administration has made in its deregulatory push.
The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity have led the way with 16 lawsuits apiece. Earthjustice, another top environmental group, has filed at least nine lawsuits. The Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, Friends of the Earth and a host of other organizations also have jumped into the legal fray, flooding the Justice Department with dozens of legal actions.
Even the League of Conservation Voters, which until this year had never filed legal challenges and remained a strictly political group, announced its first-ever lawsuit, challenging President Trump’s executive order opening new areas for offshore drilling. The league cast the move as proof that the political winds had dramatically shifted, and they were forced to adapt.
“We aren’t about to go down without a fight,” the group’s president, Gene Karpinski, wrote this month explaining the legal challenge. “To be clear, we’re not reinventing ourselves as a legal outfit. But in a country where too much of our government is controlled by forces hostile to conservation and environmental safeguards, we simply cannot afford to leave any tool in the toolbox.”
It’s unclear just how many legal complaints have been filed — the Justice Department says it does not maintain a comprehensive list of environmental lawsuits — but the weight of the numbers underscores just how much the shift from the Obama to the Trump administration has meant for energy and environmental policy.
Under the previous administration, the groups worked closely with government officials, offering advice and even helping craft regulations.
They would even use lawsuits to try to assist the Environmental Protection Agency and other departments, going to court to force the government to follow through on long-stalled environmental decisions. The process was known as sue-and-settle, and it earned the environmental groups millions of dollars in legal fees even as it shaped pro-environmental policies.
Now, however, the relationship is completely adversarial.
Although the barrage of lawsuits has helped environmentalist groups’ bottom lines — a number of top organizations have reported record fundraising since Mr. Trump took office — some analysts say the administration also has provided an unprecedented opportunity for organizations to take tangible action defending their missions.
“Is this just opposition for the sake of opposition? This is opposition for the sake of environmental protection and for the sake of seeking to protect human health,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “None of these are frivolous lawsuits.”
The groups still cast themselves as defenders of the planet, but their websites, fundraising pitches and social media accounts focus heavily on slowing down Mr. Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and other administration officials intent on rolling back the regulatory framework put into place over the past eight years.
The League of Conservation Voters lawsuit challenges Mr. Trump’s executive order this month directing the Interior Department to review the nation’s offshore drilling protocol. The order rescinds the Obama administration’s moratorium on new offshore leases and potentially will open up more areas in the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans to energy exploration.
Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council will act as the League of Conservation Voters’ attorneys in that case and are part of multiple other lawsuits against the Trump administration.
The organization has sued to stop Mr. Trump’s executive order requiring two regulations to be scrapped for each one enacted, to block the EPA from approving certain new pesticides, to uphold the Clean Power Plan limit on carbon emissions from power plants that Mr. Pruitt is dismantling, and a host of other matters.
“These legal battles are just beginning, but we will stick with them for as long as it takes,” Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen wrote recently.
The administration defends its deregulatory push, arguing that the EPA is better positioned to improve water and air quality than it was during the previous administration. Mr. Pruitt argued Wednesday that many pieces of the Obama administration’s environmental agenda — which were strongly backed by the nation’s top environmental activists — ultimately were blocked by courts. These include the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the U.S. rule and others.
“The environmental left looks at the past administration to say [it was] the environmental savior,” the EPA chief told Fox Business on Wednesday. “When you look at the record, that is not the case.”
Analysts say that while it may appear the number of legal challenges is at an all-time high, the truth is that there are few historical comparisons. Major action on climate change began only during the latter half of the Obama administration, and while past Republicans have at times slashed EPA budgets and rolled back federal regulations, there has been nothing like the Trump administration’s assault.
“Does it seem like a lot [of lawsuits] to me? I’d say the answer is no,” Mr. Burger said. “We have an administration that has unveiled a large number of anti-environment and anti-climate action measures very, very quickly, and has not done so through the regulatory process but through a process of executive orders. And those executive orders are subject to legal challenge.”
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