A deep dive into President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE’s rollback of a bedrock environmental law shows the extent to which the administration is dramatically narrowing the scope of government reviews for major projects by setting aside consideration of climate change and other impacts.
Trump on Wednesday announced a rewrite of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which for 50 years has required careful consideration of environmental and community impacts before approving new pipelines, highways, factories or drilling permits on federal lands.
The new rule no longer factors in the cumulative, indirect or direct impacts a project might have on the environment, sidestepping both an evaluation of the project’s effects on climate change and the numerous ways the surrounding environment or nearby communities — many of which are communities of color — could be disrupted.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality wrote in the new rule that “effects should generally not be considered if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain.”
The “remote in time” language could further prohibit consideration of climate change during environmental reviews.
That’s not sitting well with environmentalists.
Sally Hardin, interim director of the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress, explained the new rule this way: “When you’re evaluating a pipeline, you look just at the pipeline. But the oil transmitted through the pipeline that will get transported and burnt and elsewhere — you don't have to consider the emissions from that.”
“That’s really bad for climate change planning and for communities that are already overburdened by pollution. Not considering what you’re adding to an environmental justice community that already has three polluting facilities is terrible,” she added, referring to communities facing environmental inequalities.
In a statement to The Hill, the White House council argued that climate change might be factored in during certain evaluations.
“Trends associated with a changing climate would, in appropriate cases, be characterized in the baseline analysis of the affected environment,” the council said in a statement.
But critics say the new rule will allow the administration, which has a history of sidelining climate science, to ignore a host of environmental implications from their decisions.
“When you think of a highway, there are a lot of impacts beyond just pouring concrete itself,” said Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has helped numerous towns challenge polluting projects.
The Trump administration argues that federal agencies spend too much time trying to evaluate and categorize different kinds of project impacts and should instead evaluate them holistically.
Under the previous rule, the government would have to consider how runoff from the road might impact a nearby wetland, how emissions from the cars that would drive on that road would contribute not just to climate change but the air quality in the immediate area, as well as how the shift in traffic patterns could impact the town the road cuts through.
“Agencies may argue that elimination of these categories means they don't have to look at them,” Hunter said.
The revised rule would also make it harder for communities to challenge new development and may require people to pay a bond before filing a lawsuit, a provision experts say would likely be illegal if enforced.
Poor neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately chosen as the project sites for polluting industries. Eliminating broad consideration of the impacts of a project is expected to prove particularly damaging for them.
The rule now requires communities challenging a project to submit detailed, technical comments — something that could require hiring legal or scientific consultants.
It also would prohibit communities from launching a legal challenge if they hadn’t already raised concerns during the NEPA process.
And in a move Hunter called “mind blowingly illegal,” even those who are able to sue may have to lay out a bond before their case can proceed.
“Agencies may structure their procedures to include an appropriate bond or other security requirement,” the rule states.
The rule departs from the White House council’s proposal in January that said companies preparing NEPA documents will have to disclose their conflicts of interest.
The final rule says it is “appropriate to allow applicants to prepare documents for the sake of efficiency.”
Critics are alarmed that companies, which stand to earn millions of dollars from a project, will now be able to have a role in crafting an analysis of the environmental impacts of their project.
The original NEPA rule prevented such involvement, Hardin said.
“If they had a conflict, they couldn't do the review of it because, wow, they might want to fudge the review,” she said, describing the new approach as “a little transparent but still terrible.”
The White House council told The Hill that “agencies will continue to be required to independently evaluate, and revise as appropriate a preliminary environmental document and take responsibility for the content of any of the documents.”
Even with those assurances, environmental groups are vowing to sue over the new rule.
“It’s very concerning for the climate, very concerning for the public, for communities, and we have significant concerns over its legality,” Hardin said.