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Environmental Policy

July 22,2020

Trump Administration Erodes US Environmental Protection Act Designed to Protect At-Risk Communities

By Jacob Morton

Summary

Donald Trump has finalized a rollback of the nation’s “Magna Carta” of environmental protection policy, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). NEPA, signed into law 50 years ago by President Richard Nixon, requires government agencies to provide an environmental impact statement (EIS) for any proposed federal infrastructure project, such as building a pipeline or highway. The law requires full disclosure of the extent to which any project would impact the local environment, such as potential wildlife habitat disturbance, pollution of nearby water bodies, greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts on local communities. The law also plays an important role in allowing ample time for members of the public to provide input on how a federal infrastructure project will affect the health and safety of their community. Essentially, NEPA is the environmental law that requires an analysis of how any federal project will impact the environment and allows local citizens to express their concerns.

The Trump administration’s new version of the law is designed to speed up the permitting process for federal infrastructure projects. The new rule now requires a hard deadline of only “two years or less” for any environmental impact statement, shortening the review and public comment process by anywhere from 1-3 years. On average, federal environmental impact statements take 4.5 years to complete. Other revisions to the law now give federal agencies the ability to create their own categories of projects that they feel do not require an environmental impact review at all. On top of that, Trump’s new rule declares that environmental impact statements no longer need to consider a project’s “cumulative effects on climate change,” and instead, require only an analysis of any “reasonably foreseeable” impacts. This means federal projects no longer need to analyze and disclose how residual or secondary impacts resulting from the proposed project, will affect the regional environment or climate change over time.

Analysis

The oil and gas industry, along with many republican officials, have argued for years about the burdensome approval process required for federal development permits, and complain about the hurdles and delays that routinely result from pushback by environmental groups who claim violations of the NEPA law. Donald Trump himself has complained of his own frustrations as a real estate developer, having to comply with the law, which he calls a “ridiculous process” and “the single biggest obstacle to infrastructure projects.” White House officials say, “The new regulations will modernize, simplify and accelerate the environmental review process necessary to build a wide range of projects in the United States, including roads, bridges and highways.”

Despite the White House’s optimism, others view this to be an extremely dangerous, corrupt, and unethical move. Many consider the new rule to be anything but modern, rather a step backwards. Critics of the law’s revisions say, “it could sideline the concerns of poor and minority communities impacted by those projects and discount their impact on climate change.” Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that NEPA was designed to give communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution from federal projects, such as highways, pipelines and chemical plants, an opportunity to voice their concerns and have a say in the health and future of their communities. “NEPA gives poor and communities of color a say in the projects that will define their communities for decades to come. Rather than listen, the Trump administration’s plan aims to silence such voices,” says Buccino.

An important part of the public comment process is the opportunity for communities to suggest alternatives to the proposed project, such as a wind or solar system instead of an oil or gas pipeline. However, Trump’s new version of the law allows developers of these projects, who are applying for the necessary permits, “to limit the range of alternatives that can be considered, while communities seeking to challenge a project will now need to offer far more onerous critiques.” Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, describes how the new rule makes it harder for local communities to challenge these federal projects. She explains, “It requires comments to be really specific, to cite page numbers and be really technical in ways that can be really challenging for communities. They may need to hire people to write their letters, if they can afford to do that.”

Opponents to the new rule view its elimination of the requirement to consider the cumulative effects of a project, to be particularly dangerous. “Cumulative effects” largely equates to how a project will contribute to climate change over time. For instance, the cumulative effects of building a new highway would include not just the environmental damage from the road itself, but also the impact from all the greenhouse gas emitting vehicles that will drive on it, and how this added pollution will compound upon the pollution already occurring from the existing roadways in the area. “This idea of cumulative impacts is really core to the way NEPA works,” says President Obama’s former head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Christy Goldfuss … “and arguably there is no greater environmental crisis that is tied to cumulative impacts than climate change. Because it’s really about greenhouse gases on top of greenhouse gases and other pollution adding up to this global disaster that we’re all experiencing.”

According to Trump’s new rule, only the damage caused by the road itself is required to be considered and disclosed. Not accounting for the cumulative effects of these projects greatly endangers the “poor communities and communities of color that are disproportionately selected as the site for polluting industries and projects.” Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues “People have a right to weigh in before a highway project tears up their neighborhood or a pipeline goes through their backyard. Steamrolling their concerns will mean more polluted air, more contaminated water, more health threats and more environmental destruction.” McCarthy says, “Now more than ever our leaders should be helping people breathe easier, not handing out favors to oil drillers, pipeline developers and other polluters.” Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity says of the new rule, “This may be the single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” and Greenpeace USA calls it “a blatant attempt to silence the working-class communities of color [who were] resisting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Hartl expresses the fears many have of the new rule when he says, “NEPA’s dismantling is a win for corruption, a win for polluters, and a win for those that profit off the destruction of our planet. Everyone else loses.” Belinda Archibong, an assistant professor of economics at Barnard College of Columbia University also argues that the Trump administration is doing the opposite of what it should if it really wants to improve the economy. Considering that air pollution makes whole communities more susceptible to the coronavirus, the President should be imposing more environmental restrictions, not less. She says, “Saying ‘We’re going to pull back on regulation’ does not mean that firms are going to start hiring more people. That’s complete nonsense. All that’s going to happen is it’s going to lead to more pollution, period.” Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) says, “With today’s Trump administration rule, fossil fuel corporations will be able to ram harmful projects through without considering the pollution dangers to people in nearby neighborhoods. NEPA gives our very vulnerable communities across the country an opportunity to make our voices heard and stop pollution in our own backyards. President Trump is trying to rob us of our voice. We will not be silenced.” Environmental groups plan to challenge the administration’s revisions in court and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has vowed to reverse such rollbacks if he is elected.

Resistance Resources

  • Documented is a watchdog group that investigates how corporations manipulate public policy, harming our environment, communities, and democracy. https://documented.net/

Natural Resources Defense Council

  • Works to safeguard the earth – its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. Combining the power of more than three million members and online activists with the expertise of some 700 scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild. https://www.nrdc.org/

Greenpeace USA

  • Greenpeace is a global, independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/

Center for Biological Diversity

  • At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/

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