Hours after his inauguration, President Biden issued an executive order to review 48 actions by the Trump-era Environmental Protection Agency, including several controversial decisions on agricultural chemicals. Environmental and food safety groups saw the action as a welcome sign that the Biden EPA will begin to temper what they see as the agency’s industry-friendly stance and prioritize the environment, public health, and science.
Most notably, the review list included the pesticide chlorpyrifos, whose 2017 ban was reversed by the Trump administration; a rule that weakened pesticide application safety standards; and another rule narrowing which scientific studies could be used in pesticide evaluations.
There is much more to do — or rather undo. Of the roughly 100 environmental rollbacks during Trump’s tenure, the reinstatement of previously banned toxic pesticides, including the neonicotinoid sulfoxaflor and the herbicide isoxaflutole, are among the most controversial and the ones industry critics are most eager to see reversed. Another is the Trump EPA’s decision to re-register three dicamba pesticide products only five months after a federal court banned the weedkiller’s use last summer. Advocates have sued to overturn that Trump decision.
“There’s not much the agency can do super-fast,” says former acting deputy EPA administrator Stan Meiburg, now director of graduate programs in sustainability at Wake Forest University. “All of environmental policy is a trade-off with stringency and time,” he says.
Decisions made toward the end of the Trump administration will be the easiest to reverse, and it’s likely that Trump’s executive orders can be overturned by the new administration using the same process the White House used to reverse the chlorpyrifos ban.
For regulations that went through rulemaking, the swiftest reversal would be through use of the Congressional Review Act. The fast-track procedure gives the Biden administration 60 legislative days to overturn rules issued by federal agencies since Aug. 21, 2020. But this effort would require mustering considerable political will amid a pandemic and an impeachment trial. With more than 1,400 regulatory actions eligible to be overturned — more than 150 of them EPA rules — the Biden administration will likely be able to prioritize only 10 to 20 of them, according to an assessment by Pillsbury Law.
Many expect the Congressional Review Act will be the most likely means of overturning a rule designed to thwart the use of human health data, particularly epidemiological studies, in pesticide risk assessments. The rule was fast-tracked and approved in the waning days of the Trump administration, but a federal court ruled Wednesday that it broke the law in doing so. “It’s the worst thing to ever happen to the agency,” says Penny Fenner-Crisp, former senior science adviser to the director of the Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP), a division of the EPA, and now a consultant with the Environmental Protection Network, an advocacy group of former EPA officials.