Sustainability Climate Change

Trump rolls back landmark environmental law NEPA

President Trump speaks during an event about regulatory reform on the South Lawn of the White House on July 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. On Wednesday, President Trump announced a rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act.  Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • The Trump administration announced rollbacks of a bedrock environmental law, which they say will benefit the economy by speeding up construction projects.
  • Overhauling NEPA is one of the most dramatic changes the president has attempted to make to slash an environmental policy, though he has pushed to roll back at least 100 environmental rules.
  • The ruling will most certainly be challenged in court and likely remain in limbo until the upcoming presidential election in November.

First enacted on Jan. 1, 1970, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a Nixon-era law that requires federal agencies to determine the possibly detrimental effects that major projects such as oil pipelines, highways and bridges could have on the surrounding environment.

The review process that NEPA requires government agencies to engage in is intended to discover not only the cumulative effects that construction could have on climate change, but also takes into account how possible public health projects could affect citizens living nearby the proposed construction site.

Streamlining the construction process

On Wednesday, the White House finalized its rollback of the environmental law, which President Trump called the “single biggest obstacle” to major construction projects.

During his announcement on Wednesday, President Trump cited the “mountains and mountains of red tape” that had been holding up infrastructure projects across the country. “All of that ends today,” he said. “We’re doing something very dramatic.”

Indeed, his revision of the 50-year-old law is one of the most consequential deregulatory actions by the Trump administration to date, and over the course of his presidency it has moved to roll back at least 100 rules protecting clean air and water, as well as others that aim to reduce the threat of human-caused climate change — an issue which President Trump has repeatedly been quoted as saying he does not believe in.

“Today’s action is part of my administration’s fierce commitment to slashing the web of needless bureaucracy that is holding back our citizens. I’ve been wanting to do this from day one. It’s one of the biggest things we can be doing for our country.”

Proponents of the changes by the Trump administration have complained that reviews under the guidelines of NEPA have significantly slowed their projects down and take years to complete. The reviews currently take up to about 4 1/2 years, while the new White House guidelines would see that timeline reduced down to two years.

The rollback doesn’t just pose a threat to the environment

Environmentalists were quick to criticize the decision, saying the rollback will disproportionately affect marginalized communities, many of whom live in areas with higher rates of pollution, who were able to voice their concerns through NEPA before construction on pipelines, highways and new factories were built near their homes.


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“The Trump administration’s anti-environment agenda is a racist agenda. Dismantling NEPA is a blatant attempt to silence the working class communities of color who are resisting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure into their communities,” said Lisa Ramsden, senior climate campaigner of Greenpeace USA.

Critics of the rollback are concerned by the new rule, which will allow agencies to develop categories of activities that do not require an environmental assessment at all and would free federal agencies from having to consider the effects of infrastructure projects on climate change by eliminating the need for agencies to analyze a project’s indirect or cumulative effects on the environment.

The deal is not yet sealed

The final ruling by the Trump administration is not technically final, as the implementation of the rollback could still be threatened by the Congressional Review Act. Under the law, Congress can overturn a federal agency’s rule-making within 60 legislative days of its finalization — which Democrats have pledged to follow through with next year if they have the votes. 

Regardless, the rule will most likely be subject to a lengthy court battle and also comes shortly before November’s presidential election. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who recently unveiled a $2 trillion climate change plan, has vowed to reverse Trump’s environmental rollbacks were he to take office.


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