Analysis & Insights

Legislative Trends In Response to COVID-19 and Possible Impacts on the Environment
Cha Cha Sawyer
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation (and globe) has brought sudden drops in carbon emissions.
  • But governments are eager to revitalize economic activity and have relaxed regulations on environmental enforcement and noncompliance consequences.
  • Question: Will COVID-19 enforcement discretion policies worsen environmental-related issues?

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is affecting all lives across the United States (U.S.) and all sectors of society, at a rapid and unprecedented rate. Mitigating the spread and infection of the virus is a top priority for governments, as the virus has severely slowed down economic activity across the nation. This has resulted in some environmental improvements, such as reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions . However, these improvements may not last as governments put in place, a wide range of COVID-19 policy responses to revitalize economic stability and growth. On March 26, 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced they would ease enforcement of environmental legal obligations because “COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” during the state of emergency. EPA’s policy encourages states to “take into account the safety and health of their inspectors and facility personnel and use discretion when making decisions to conduct routine inspections.” As a result, states have adopted their own enforcement discretion policies, which range from continued regulatory enforcement of environmental requirements and consequences for noncompliance, to case-by-case relaxation that can be justified, to broader relaxation where COVID-19 interferes with compliance. For example, the governor of California’s EPA (CalEPA) issued a response to EPA’s COVID-19 policy stating CalEPA “remains intact” and “expects compliance with environmental obligations,” despite EPA’s memorandum. Whereas, Washington state’s Department of Ecology still responds to spills and enforce environmental protection laws, but is keeping in line with EPA’s policy by only encouraging regulated entities to document disruptions the pandemic has caused for operations.

The question to think about is, will relaxed regulatory enforcement due to COVID-19 have lasting impacts on the environment?

Immediately after the 2008 financial crisis, global CO2 emissions decreased by 1.4 percent; by 2010, emissions increased by 5.9 percent by 2010. The current crisis could have similar or longer-term effects on the environment as the White House seeks to make many temporary deregulatory actions permanent. Since these guidances are broadly written, they place more responsibility on the private sector to adhere to environmental regulation. This could potentially influence companies’ actions on how they develop tools to measure air pollution. The enforcement discretion policies may also create challenges for environmental researchers since companies are being asked (not mandated) to make monitored data available to the EPA, if requested by the agency.

Already, EPA data shows the number of unhealthy air days in major U.S. cities have increased in the last two years. Critics and environmental group oppositions say such policies will only result in more pollutants and make it more difficult to assess environmental damage.

In addition, according to a briefing by United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres, this was supposed to be a pivotal year to address climate change. But as major events such as the UN’s annual climate summit has been postponed due to the pandemic, the inability to mobilize leaders and governments to address environmental issues could threaten efforts to meet climate commitments that have been made in previous years.

Cha Cha Sawyer

Sarah 'Cha Cha' Sawyer

Policy Intern
Seattle, WA

Cha Cha Sawyer is a Master of Social Work student from the University of Washington. Her concentration is in Administration and Public Policy. She also attended the University of Washington for undergrad and obtained her B.A. in Psychology with a minor in International Studies. Her policy interests are in social, economic environmental justice. Cha Cha grew up and currently resides in Seattle, WA. Some of her favorite things to do are train for (half) marathons, ski, hike, cook, read, and hangout with her dog. She is also involved in school clubs, which include: Environmental Justice and Social Work, Asian American and Pacific Islander Club, and the Transracial Asian American Adoptee Group.