“As the country faces a global pandemic and grapples with persistent racial injustice, the last thing communities need is an attack on this bedrock environmental and civil rights law.”
President Donald Trump on Wednesday weakened one of the nation’s essential environmental laws, a move that advocates said would be “devastating for the environment” and harm the health of low-income communities and communities of color.
Trump’s rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a Nixon-era conservation law, will limit public review of federal infrastructure projects, allowing developers to speed up the construction of freeways, power plants, and natural gas pipelines, and freeing federal agencies from having to consider the impacts of projects on climate change.
“This is a truly historic breakthrough,” Trump said Wednesday afternoon at an event outside a UPS Hub in Atlanta, where he announced the move. “Together, we’re reclaiming America’s proud heritage as a nation of builders and a nation that can get things done.” Trump has long loathed regulations and said that “mountains and mountains of red tape” and lengthy permit processes had delayed necessary infrastructure projects.
The law requires the federal government to study the impact of major projects or federal actions on the environment and to get public input from communities that stand to be affected before approving the projects. This, supporters of NEPA say, provides poor communities and communities of color—which have long been the most affected by pollution—a seat at the table and helps protect their air, water, and health.
Those supporters vocally expressed their anger on Wednesday and vowed to fight back against what they viewed as a giveaway to polluters.
“President Trump continues to show that he values polluter profits far more than the health and safety of our families. Today’s changes to the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act perpetuate environmental racism,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “This move undermines communities’ ability to have a voice in major construction projects in their own backyards—especially low-income and communities of color that are often targeted by the fossil fuel industry and other heavy industry.”
Research has shown that Black, Latino, and low-income Americans are disproportionately exposed to air and water pollution and are more likely than their white or wealthy counterparts to live near coal-fired power plants, toxic waste facilities, and other polluting facilities. The problem is so rampant that more than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities, exposing them to a higher risk of cancer and asthma, according to a 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Trump’s rollback could put these communities at even greater risk, advocates say, while greatly reducing costs for the companies behind infrastructure projects.
The new rule limits when federal environmental reviews of projects are mandated, exempting certain projects and activities from reviews altogether. It will also limit environmental assessments to one year and environmental impact statements to two years, reducing how much time federal agencies and the public have to voice their concerns about the environmental impacts of a project.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune accused the Trump administration of trying to silence these frontline communities, an effort he deemed “despicable.”
“As the country faces a global pandemic and grapples with persistent racial injustice, the last thing communities need is an attack on this bedrock environmental and civil rights law,” Brune said in a statement. “We will pursue every legal avenue to fight back against this anti-democratic, racist, and deeply destructive plan.”
In another controversial change, Trump’s rollback will also no longer require federal agencies to consider “indirect effects” of projects on climate change, which could have enormous consequences. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, this measure could potentially allow natural gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure to be constructed without thorough environmental analyses, even though it’s been proven that fossil fuels play a substantial role in causing climate change and damaging the environment.
“This may be the single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The Trump administration is turning back the clock to when rivers caught fire, our air was unbreathable, and our most beloved wildlife was spiraling toward extinction. The foundational law of the modern environmental movement has been turned into a rubber stamp to enrich for-profit corporations, and we doubt the courts will stand for that.”
An array of Democrats also blasted Trump’s plan, accusing the president of “coddling corporate polluters.”
Republicans, meanwhile, praised Trump’s efforts, despite the backlash from environmentalists.
The rule represents something of a coup for developers, the oil and gas industry, home builders, and construction companies who have criticized the federal permitting process and argue that their projects are critical to the economy.
“NEPA modernization will help America streamline permitting to move job-creating infrastructure projects off the drawing board and into development,” Mike Sommers, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement. “These reforms will help accelerate the nation’s economic recovery and advance energy infrastructure while continuing necessary environmental reviews.”
But Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, scoffed at this idea, arguing that by endangering the public health of communities by gutting NEPA, they also endangered the economy. “When is this administration going to learn that the economy is the people?” Boyles said.
The rollback marks just the latest efforts by the Trump administration to weaken the nation’s environmental laws. Since taking office, Trump and his allies have moved to roll back 100 environmental rules, including ones that protect clean air and water. Those efforts have continued during the coronavirus pandemic, with critics saying the administration is using COVID-19 as “cover” for carrying out its polluter agenda.
“President Trump is desperately trying to jam through as many pro-polluter attacks on the environment as possible, using cover of the respiratory pandemic ravaging communities around the country,” said Matthew Davis, legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters. “And as with COVID-19, Trump doesn’t have a plan on climate, and is simply ignoring scientific evidence and experts while doubling down on the public health crisis and environmental racism.”
Trump’s rollback of NEPA is certain to be challenged in court and could be reversed if the presumptive Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden, wins November’s general election.
Biden opposes Trump’s rollback of NEPA and Matt Hill, a Biden campaign spokesman, told the Associated Press that Trump’s regulatory efforts were an attempt to “destroy a bipartisan, cornerstone law to distract from the fact that ‘Infrastructure Week’ never happened and never will happen as long as he is president.”
The difference between the two candidates’ approaches to the environment and climate change became crystal clear this week. While Trump focused on rolling back NEPA this week, Biden introduced an ambitious $2 trillion plan to fight climate change, reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2035, promote conservation efforts, and rebuild the American economy. That plan won praise from environmental advocates.
“President Trump’s lack of a plan and misguided, counterproductive actions stand in stark contrast to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and candidate Vice President Biden who have both recently released bold plans to tackle the climate crisis, address environmental injustice, and build our economy back better,” Davis said.
Trump on Thursday spoke outside the White House, where he was set to deliver remarks on his rollback of regulations. Instead, he rambled about shower heads and dishwashers.