Trump administration moves to weaken environmental safeguards for federal construction projects

Is This Infrastructure Week?

Trump administration moves to weaken environmental safeguards for federal construction projects

Federal agencies would be able to skirt environmental review processes required for highway construction projects under a new NEPA-dismantling executive order. (Ed Schipul/Flickr)

As thousands of Americans collectively grieve Black lives lost to police violence and take to the streets as part of the largest civil rights movement in generations during a still raging pandemic, the Trump administration, via executive order, has put forth designs to roll back a host of keystone environmental laws and regulations. The nixing of many of these laws further harms underserved communities already disproportionately impacted by polluted air and water. The administration’s reasoning is that by fully or partially waiving the bureaucratic red tape associated with environmental protections during the coronavirus crisis, economy-bolstering federal construction projects will be streamlined and can move forward at an accelerated pace.

While several major environmental laws, many of them decades-old, would be rolled back and hobbled by Trump’s executive order, chief among them is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a landmark 1970 law signed into existence by Richard Nixon that stipulates that the various agencies overseeing major infrastructural projects—the construction of highways, airports, oil drilling sites, pipelines, and on—consider the potential environmental impacts of said projects prior to commencing work. As NPR explained: “It requires agencies to examine the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and consider alternatives. It also gives people a chance to see how a project might affect them and weigh in on what decision the government should make. If a project affects an endangered animal or plant the Endangered Species Act might also be involved.”

Speaking to Popular Science, Chris Field, an earth scientist at Stanford University, referred to NEPA as a “real jewel in the nation’s environmental legislation, and it’s something that needs to be preserved and celebrated.” He also noted that thorough environmental reviews mandated by the law are one reason why the Obama administration opted to temporarily pull the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline project, a project that Trump has revived.

But as the Trump administration sees it, the crucial and often drawn-out review processes associated with NEPA serve as burdensome roadblocks in revving up a slumped economy, and post-haste:

“Unnecessary regulatory delays will deny our citizens opportunities for jobs and economic security, keeping millions of Americans out of work and hindering our economic recovery from the national emergency,” reads the order, which enables individual agencies to use emergency provisions as a means of circumventing federal environmental standards, which, in turn, ensures a much quicker review process.

Reaction to the executive order has been swift from both Democratic lawmakers as well as environmental and social justice advocates.

“This administration is removing phantom barriers that are at their essence protections for the very communities that are struggling most from the health impacts of air and water pollution,” Christy Goldfuss of the Center for American Progress said in a statement shared by The Hill. “They’re trying to divert attention away from the crisis of racial injustice happening around the country, by giving agency leads the excuse to ram through polluting projects that will prop up the dying fossil fuel industry while destroying the very same communities that are dying at higher rates from COVID-19 and police violence, as well.”

Some experts are also questioning the legality of Trump’s move, which former Environmental Protection Agency attorney Joe Mintz referred to as “unexplored territory.”

“We’ve never had a president that is so anti-environmental to begin with and we’ve never had a president try to use the executive order power to undercut environmental laws,” Mintz explained to E&E News. “As far as the legality, there is a real question as to whether or not the president can contradict the directives of Congress and essentially suspend environmental laws that are in effect.”

As Grist points out, the Trump administration had been itching to dismantle key elements of the 50-year-old NEPA well before the coronavirus crisis hit and had previously announced plans in January to overhaul key sections of the law including truncating deadlines for environmental assessments and impact statements. Developers and the heads of various extractive industries, many of which are directly responsible for America’s pollution woes, are largely in favor of the loosened laws.

“Today President Trump is dealing another blow to the Black community, during a worldwide pandemic and nearly a week into nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and structural racism,” said Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, in a June 4 statement. “Gutting NEPA takes away one of the few tools communities of color have to protect themselves and make their voices heard on federal decisions impacting them. NEPA is a public health law as well as an environmental law, and as we’ve seen time and time again, this administration considers public health and environmental laws nothing more than roadblocks to their anti-environmental agenda. This is another attack on Black communities and communities of color by President Trump.”