December 10, 2019
In the coming weeks, the Trump administration is poised to make some major changes to how much—or more likely, how little—environmental review and public input is required for federal projects, including for roads and bridges, oil and gas development, and pipeline construction.
In yet another handout to Trump’s corporate donors and oil, gas and coal industry allies, the administration is expected to gut implementation of the only law that requires the federal government to consider the environmental impacts of its actions and gives the public and communities a voice in federal decision-making. Thirty industry groups—including the Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute—recently sent a letter to the Trump administration asking it to “expeditiously proceed” with its changes to the law’s implementation. That 50-year-old bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), has never been under such grave threat.
Simply put, these upcoming proposed changes could have extreme implications for every single federal project, action, and decision—and how those actions impact our health and communities.
Under the guise of “reform” and “streamlining,” White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chairwoman Mary Neumayr and the rest of the Trump administration are readying to make it easier for companies to steamroll neighborhoods and pollute our air and water. Because only Congress can amend the actual NEPA statute, in June 2018, the CEQ announced its attempt at the next best thing: It planned to reconsider the regulations that direct federal agencies on how to implement NEPA. Since they were written more than four decades ago in 1978, these regulations have only been amended twice for minor reasons, including once to update CEQ’s mailing address. But now, the administration is in its review phase for changes to these regulations before publicly proposing what could be significant changes, given Trump’s focus on attacking environmental protections to benefit polluting industries.
At present, the NEPA regulations cover the following categories (among others), which provide some insight as to why the Trump administration could target these regulations whole cloth to achieve its anti-environmental agenda:
By targeting this law, Trump and his team will likely weaken these regulations—allowing his cabinet and corporate pals to unilaterally sidestep communities, public health, worker safety, and environmental protections. In addition to damaging Americans’ access to clean air and water, these proposed changes have the potential to be the most significant action the Trump administration takes to limit the government’s response to climate change.
So, what’s really at stake? In short, hamstringing NEPA could threaten our health, environment and communities—and our ability to adjust to the impacts of climate change.
The Trump administration’s attempted attacks on NEPA would be a scam to weaken protections for clean air and clean water, public lands, and wildlife, making it easier for project sponsors to bulldoze communities and decimate natural habitats without proper review and input.
Right now, NEPA requires that agencies consider a project or permit’s impacts to “the human environment,” including air quality, water sources, and public health. By changing how impacts are measured, the Trump administration could weaken these protections by directing agencies to only consider impacts on a small area around the project; limiting the types of impacts (air, water, wildlife, and toxics) that an agency must consider; or drastically reduce the possible categories of projects that are eligible for environmental review. If the administration were to reduce the types of projects that get reviewed, this would allow for many more projects to proceed without information from the public or analysis of how the project will impact cultural sites, air, or water. Drillers and developers might be able to pollute drinking water or emit toxins into the air near communities without any kind of consideration in the planning process.
For example, in Florida in 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers reviewed permits to mine limestone in the Lake Belt region of Miami-Dade, Florida—and their analysis of impacts to water was insufficient, failing to fulfill the requirements of NEPA. As a result, the review failed to consider how the mining could impact nearby wetlands that provide drinking water to more than 1 million Floridians. Opponents offered a legal challenge—alleging that the Corps had not followed the full review process required by NEPA—but by then, a carcinogen from the mining process had already leaked into nearby water supplies. Ultimately, after a judge cancelled the permits, the Corps conducted a more in-depth environmental analysis of the project—resulting in a process change to protect drinking water.
One of the ways in which NEPA has most benefited the American public, apart from protecting our clean air and clean water, is by giving public citizens and communities a voice in the federal decision-making process. During the review process, the government must clearly lay out its alternative plans and accept any and all public comment on these plans. Agencies must respond to all comments received from the public in their final decision, allowing for careful consideration and even opportunities for public redress, if necessary. But that wasn’t always the case. Before NEPA existed, federal infrastructure dollars were used to bulldoze vulnerable communities who were given no say in the matter—in particular, communities of color.
For example, in 1956, Minnesota planned to construct a major highway with federal dollars—I-94—right through St. Paul’s historically African American neighborhood of Rondo. Even after the community organized the Rondo-St. Anthony Improvement Association to make their voice heard in the fight against the highway, federal dollars still greenlit the bulldozing of 650 homes and 100 African American-owned businesses. This was because, at the time, the Rondo community had no other avenue for recourse. This could be the kind of future the Trump administration envisions for Americans, if his administration attempts to limit public input by shortening public comment periods; decreasing the number of opportunities in a review process where communities can provide input; and changing how public input is considered by agencies.
Finally, the Trump administration’s undoing of NEPA could severely exacerbate climate change—a crisis Trump refuses to recognize. Already, the Trump administration tried to undo any consideration of future climate impacts from federal decision-making by removing mentions of climate change from agency websites and rolling back guidance to agencies on how to consider it. The Trump administration has already lost in court more than 12 times for not considering the climate impacts of its actions—for example, when leasing land for oil and gas development and mining. These regulatory reforms to NEPA could therefore likely be the administration’s effort to override these court losses and barrel forward with their misguided “energy dominance” agenda. Yet, without the authority to consider climate change in federal decisions, there could be serious impacts on the government’s ability to build climate-resilient infrastructure and climate-prepared communities.
For example, in November 2018, a Montana federal judge halted the Trump administration’s permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline, finding that the administration had ignored the climate impacts that would come from building the pipeline when conducting its rushed environmental review. In fact, in his opinion, Judge Brian Morris of the U.S. District Court for Montana wrote that the Trump administration “simply discarded prior factual findings related to climate change to support its course reversal.”
Additionally, a recent CAP analysis found that the proposal from Trump’s Interior Department to expand offshore drilling could lead to total greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 10 billion cars, which is nine times greater than the number of cars on the road worldwide today. The Trump administration did not calculate or consider the emissions that would follow from this action. That an outside group’s analyses of federal agency actions were even necessary shows just how critical it is that agencies consider climate change in their project planning as well as how devastating the impacts could be if ignored.
If the Trump administration were really interested in “streamlining” environmental review, there are plenty of other options already available. For example, Congress has provided sufficient authority to speed environmental review through permitting reforms presented in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, and the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. However, the administration has not fully implemented those authorities, which include a federal permitting dashboard for tracking project process and increasing staff and staff training for agency employees implementing NEPA.
Definitively, however, sacrificing our clean air, clean water, public health, and even our future is not the right choice. There’s too much at stake if the Trump administration goes forward with rewriting how agencies should conduct environmental review. These changes are arguably more sweeping than any other anti-environmental action that the Trump administration has taken; it’s this administration’s last opportunity to undermine the government’s ability to prepare for climate change and protect communities. Americans deserve better than a scam to sell out our clean air, clean water, and safe climate to Trump’s corporate allies.
Sally Hardin is the deputy director of the energy and environment War Room at the Center for American Progress. Claire Moser is the director of the energy and environment War Room at the Center for American Progress.
The authors would like to thank Will Beaudoin for his contributions to this column.