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Why Trump’s rollback of the US’ most vital environmental law is bad for all of us

On January 9, Donald Trump announced there would be an overhaul of the US’ landmark environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Today, he finalized a rollback of the NEPA.

This drastically limits the ability of citizens and communities to learn about and give input on major infrastructure projects that could threaten public health and the environment.

What’s NEPA again?

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law on January 1, 1970, by Republican President Richard Nixon. NEPA has been in place for 50 years and is considered a bedrock environmental regulation.

In the Environmental Protection Agency‘s own words:

NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. The range of actions covered by NEPA is broad and includes:

  • Making decisions on permit applications,
  • Adopting federal land management actions, and
  • Constructing highways and other publicly owned facilities.

Using the NEPA process, agencies evaluate the environmental and related social and economic effects of their proposed actions. Agencies also provide opportunities for public review and comment on those evaluations.

What the rollback does

In April, Electrek reported on a dubious backdoor email address for the industry to comment on plans for NEPA deregulation — special privileges, perhaps?

The revised plan establishes two-year time limits for environmental impact statements and one-year limits for weakened environmental assessments. This makes it easier to build highways, pipelines, chemical plants, and other projects that pose environmental risks and restricts the ability of agencies to consider a project’s full impact.

Why it’s bad for everyone

In June, Electrek reported that Trump, citing the need for economic stimulus due to the pandemic, signed an executive order that allowed key energy and infrastructure projects to move forward without required environmental reviews. In other words, he used the excuse of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic to ram through polluting projects — at a time when clean air couldn’t be more important.

The public’s voice has now been stifled with the NEPA deregulation. Further, Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities will be most adversely impacted by shortcutting those reviews, as fossil-fuel projects often disproportionately affect those communities.

Up until now, NEPA has required, with the backing of federal courts, that the federal government considers a project’s carbon footprint when it comes to leasing public lands for fossil-fuel projects.

And federal agencies will no longer have to consider the impacts of infrastructure projects on climate change.

The Trump plan carries out the wishes of energy companies that have lobbied the government to deregulate what they consider laborious permitting requirements.

Experts’ Take

Kevin S. Curtis, executive director of the NRDC Action Fund, said:

We know President Trump is beholden to polluters, but now he also wants to muzzle everyone else. He wants to silence anyone who might object to pipelines or other projects that could wreck their communities or pollute their neighborhoods. This November, voters will have the chance to end Trump’s all-out assault on the environment and public health once and for all.

Mustafa Santiago Ali, former associate administrator at the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, said:

Trump’s unilateral dismantling of NEPA, our oldest and one of our most important environmental laws, isn’t surprising, but nonetheless again proves he and his administration have no regard for the impact their actions will have on our most vulnerable — who are already overburdened by pollution, lack of access to healthcare, structural racism, and other environmental injustices. Through this latest action, our black, brown, and indigenous communities will pay with their health and ultimately with their lives. They always have. This move is callous and reckless. It’s really that simple.

Electrek’s (and the NRDC’s) Take

As we reported this morning, Trump’s only interest, when it comes to energy, is money, deregulation, and supporting fossil fuels, who are big contributors to his presidential campaign coffers. (It’s all there on his website.) He has no interest in environmental impact or climate change. And a clean and healthy environment is one of our most crucial assets in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic right now — being outside is where it should be safest. This deregulation is about the economy only, and consequences be damned.

However, today’s decision will certainly be challenged in court by environmental groups. And the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sharon Buccino points out the twist in this ridiculous, destructive decision:

One irony of the Trump administration’s regulatory attack on NEPA is that while it’s aimed at fast-tracking approvals for pipelines, coal mines, and oil drilling, it’s actually going to lead to more of a legal mess that will slow down all kinds of projects. Trump cannot change what the statute that Congress passed requires. Courts have said over and over again that NEPA’s requirements include analyzing cumulative impacts. Agencies and developers who ignore this will find themselves in court over and over again.

Given the crises our nation is facing, we cannot ignore the risk of more pollution nor the voices of the poor and communities of color. We will not let this stand.

The courts will be busy, and polluters are going to have to pay their lawyers a lot of money. So not only is it unethical, it’s incompetent, too.

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.