Trump signs order removing environmental review of major projects
President Trump signed an executive order Thursday evening that would waive requirements under a suite of environmental laws, a move the administration says will boost the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The new order expedites the permitting of construction projects and energy projects overseen by several federal agencies, using emergency authorities to skirt environmental regulations with little public notice.
“From the beginning of my Administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays,” Trump wrote in the order. “The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis.”
The order would slash the requirements in a number of landmark environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires rigorous environmental review before building new infrastructure like highways or pipelines.
Thursday’s order sparked backlash from environmental justice advocates, who slammed both the substance of the order and its timing, which comes amid nationwide protests over police brutality.
“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, who headed the White House Council on Environmental Quality under the Obama administration and now works at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement.
“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,” she added.
Trump’s order comes on the heels of one signed last month that directs agency heads to “identify regulatory standards that may inhibit economic recovery,” prompting conservative groups to say the administration should further roll back NEPA.
The latest order goes further, directing agencies to use their own emergency authorities and the emergency provisions of environmental laws to skip over standard requirements.
Agencies will now have 30 days to report which projects will be expedited under the order, but there is no requirement for that list to be publicized.
The order was widely criticized by congressional Democrats.
“Let’s be clear, this executive order is not about providing immediate relief to the American people and boosting our economy. If President Trump was interested in anything other than expanding his power, there are a number of things he and his Administration could do to help our country combat this deadly epidemic and spur economic growth,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said.
“Once again, President Trump is using the pretense of a deadly pandemic and its ensuing economic calamity to accelerate his Administration’s agenda,” he added.
Nada Culver, senior policy counsel with the National Audubon Society, said the order mirrors similar legal maneuvers used by the Trump administration to push ahead with border wall construction.
“They’re trying to use the authority to say ‘We have an emergency and it will last until this administration feels like it, and that emergency is now defined so broadly as an economic issue that it will never end,’” she told The Hill. “‘We’ll keep delaying any NEPA requirements and you’ll have to guess what we’re approving and what we’re doing.’”
NEPA has an emergency provision that allows speedy construction of projects, but the example given by the White House Council on Environmental Quality suggests it should be used to respond to natural disasters like flooding.
Lifting the requirements of the law means cutting out a number of steps.
“You’re not conducting adequate environmental review; you’re not receiving public comments or responding to public comments. You’re not taking into account the value of birds, wildlife, tribal interests, community impacts. All of those things are considered a burden with this language,” Culver said.
The laws weakened under the order have been targeted by industry groups for years, which argues that endangered species laws are too restrictive and NEPA reviews can stall projects.
The Trump administration rolled back the Endangered Species Act in August, followed by a January proposal from the Council on Environmental Quality that would limit NEPA’s scope.
That proposal excludes some projects, particularly those that receive little federal funding, from undergoing an environmental review. It also would open the door for more industry involvement in reviewing the environmental impact of their projects.
The rule is undergoing a review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Environmental groups hinted they would take legal action to block Thursday’s order.
“We will not let this stand,” Gina McCarthy, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
“Instead of trying to ease the pain of a nation in crisis, President Trump is focused on easing the pain of polluters,” said McCarthy, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration.
–Updated at 7:42 p.m.