President Trump announced on Wednesday the overhaul of one of the country’s landmark environmental laws which low-income and minority communities have used for decades to fight back against potential polluters.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) currently requires that federal agencies take into account environmental impacts before signing off on oil pipelines, highways and other projects, and seek public comment before issuing permits. The new rules will limit public input and set strict deadlines of up to two years to complete environmental studies.
The changes would allow federal agencies to rule out environmental assessments entirely on some projects, and void considerations of how infrastructure plans would impact the climate. The rule also means that the “cumulative” effects of a project on the environment would no longer be considered, and it would be reviewed in a silo from existing polluting forces in an area.
The president unveiled the final changes during a speech championing infrastructure on a trip to Atlanta, Georgia where a lane expansion is underway on the I-75 highway. Mr Trump has long complained that the red tape of federal legislation stifles infrastructure projects and jobs.
Referencing holdups to Trump Organisation construction projects, the president said: ”We just completed an unprecedented, top-to-bottom overhaul of the approval process.” He said that the legislation had cost America “trillions of dollars” and the changes will lead to more infrastructure projects.
Watering down the law, which was enacted half a century ago by Richard Nixon, is one of the most profound moves of deregulation by the Trump administration. The president, who calls the climate crisis a “hoax”, has made good on his promises to dismantle and rollback dozens of major environmental and climate protections during his time in office.
NEPA has given environmental activists and communities where projects are planned the opportunity to challenge them, often mounting legal battles.
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe used NEPA to build a legal challenge that succeeded in temporarily blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) earlier this month. The tribe argued that the pipeline, planned to run through their reservation, could contaminate drinking water and would disturb sacred lands. (A federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily halted a judge’s order that DAPL be shut down in three weeks.)
Within days of the DAPL decision, the Supreme Court upheld an order by a district court that cited NEPA in shutting down construction on the Keystone pipeline, another blow for President Trump.
In the Atlantic coastal town of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, residents have used NEPA’s safeguards to halt a waste-to-energy incinerator from operating in an area which already suffers contamination from heavy metals.
Minority and poor communities disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and the climate emergency. Some 68 per cent of black people live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant despite being 13 per cent of the population, according to GreenAmerica.org, compared to 56 per cent of white people, making them more likely to feel the health impacts of pollution including breathing issues and heart conditions. More than a third of Latinos, who make up 17 per cent of the US population, also live within a 30-mile radius.
Environmental and climate advocates are sounding the alarm over the Trump administration’s efforts to cut public participation in one of the country’s bedrock environmental protection laws.
Kristen Boyles, an attorney with nonprofit environmental law organisation, Earthjustice, told The Independent: “We’re very concerned about the kind of projects that will get review any more because the proposed rule has shrunk the universe of what counts as a major project.”
Ms Boyles described cutting down on considerations of the indirect and cumulative impacts of projects as “a dagger through the heart” due to the “little by little pollution and degradation of the environment and the climate”.
“Low-income and communities of colour have been subjected to programmes and projects like petrochemical plant after petrochemical plant, for example. The cumulative impact of all that pollution is what science tells us to look at. If this rule eliminates that review entirely, it is turning out the lights on using the science that we know is out there.”
Mitch Jones, policy director of Food & Water Watch, told The Independent in a statement: “For vulnerable communities that are too often excluded from the traditional political process, NEPA has been a vital tool for challenging the buildout of dirty energy infrastructure in their communities.
“The Trump White House seeks to stomp on the ability of communities to resist this harmful development. The changes put forth seek to restrict public input, create massive exemptions for polluters and drastically narrow consideration of how massive fossil fuel infrastructure projects impact future climate change. As a whole, this amounts to an unconscionable assault on democracy, environmental justice and the rights of all people to resist profiteering corporations seeking to use communities as dumping grounds.”
The NEPA changes would likely see more pipelines and other projects that impact the climate crisis being green-lit. It could also allow developers to push ahead with infrastructure without, for example, taking into account worsening environmental hazards like rising sea levels.
The Council on Environmental Quality, which oversees NEPA, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
NEPA was enacted by Nixon in 1970. At the time, he said working on the legislation had led him to be “further convinced that the 1970’s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters, and our living environment. It is literally now or never”.
The Trump administration’s new rule doesn’t change the law of NEPA – that would be up to Congress – but rather how the statute is carried out.
Congress has the ability to overturn a federal agency’s rule-making within 60 days of its finalisation which Democrats are expected to do next year if they have the votes. Environmental organisations are gearing up for court battles to fight the rule changes.
Mr Trump’s election rival, former VP Joe Biden, announced on Tuesday an infrastructure plan including pledging to spend $2 trillion over four years on clean energy.
He slammed the president in a statement ahead of his trip to Georgia, referencing the mounting coronavirus cases in the state.
“Unemployment is worse than it was during the Great Recession. This administration’s mismanagement has left working families and small business owners out in the cold as they endure the worst economic losses the country has faced in modern memory. Americans need a concrete, effective reopening plan that’s rooted in science and public health. They need a President who has a vision and can lead us out of this cataclysmic mess with an inclusive economy that will help create jobs and get our economy back on track,” Mr Biden said.