Trump's Assault on The Backbone of Environmental Law
While perhaps obscure to those uninvolved with construction or conservation, the National Environmental Policy Act forms the basis of protective environmental legislation for millions of Americans. Though the health and wellbeing of the country depends on this piece of legislation, its systematic dismantling by the Trump Administration in July was largely ignored by the media amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Choosing to severely weaken this law during the COVID crisis was a deliberate and sinister choice, as the White House knew that opposition would be fragmented and distracted.
NEPA was signed into law on January 1st, 1970, by President Richard Nixon, after passing unanimously through the Senate and with only minor dissent in the House. A legislative result of the 1960’s environmental movement, NEPA ensured that executive federal agencies must complete environmental assessments and environmental impact statements prior to starting construction on projects. Additionally, NEPA required federal agencies to inform the public of their plans and open their proposal to public comment. This meant that even the most marginalized Americans were now able to voice their concerns about ill-advised construction projects that would affect their communities, and communicate directly with the federal agencies that had proposed them in the first place. Formally notifying the government of the harm their project might cause often forced them to make changes that minimized that harm.
There are countless successful NEPA cases, including Joshua Tree National Park, which suffered from the noise pollution created by military jets flying over the park from California and Arizona for many years. During the mid 90’s, the military proposed flying a new type of jet over the park, which forced the Navy to complete an Environmental Impact Statement. This opened the opportunity for park visitors and staff to submit formal complaints about the noise, eventually culminating in the establishment of a new flight path constructed with input from the military, environmentalists, and park employees. The end result was a better environment for desert tortoises and other unique and specialized organisms, as well as a more enjoyable experience for park goers.
This all changed in July, as President Trump signed an executive order to weaken NEPA’s power by declaring that projects with “minimal federal funding or minimal federal involvement” are outside the scope of NEPA, and giving the agencies themselves the ability to determine what constitutes “minimal involvement.” This could impact thousands of projects throughout the US that no longer have to be brought to the local public for comment or examined for environmental impact. Trump also changed the law so that “indirect” or “cumulative” effects would no longer be under NEPA’s jurisdiction. While developers may have to consider the environmental costs of building a project, they no longer have to examine the long term effects of such proposals, including the emission of greenhouse gases.
Claiming that these changes to NEPA constitute “modernization,” Trump is proudly giving more control over our public lands and local environments to industry leaders who don’t have to worry about pollution in their neighborhoods. While this may speed up the construction of highways, it will also add more toxic chemicals to the drinking water of Americans, destroy precious ecosystems, and add millions of tons of greenhouse gasses to our atmosphere, further exacerbating the climate crisis. Needless to say, the most marginalized individuals will bear the brunt of Trump’s decision. The poorest Americans are far more likely to suffer from polluted water and air than those above the poverty line. Since the federal government and private industry are less likely to face push back from communities that don’t have the resources to defend themselves, they often choose to build polluting factories, plants, and infrastructure in poor neighborhoods. Black, Latinx, and especially Native American communities in America are also more likely to face these threats than white Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic status. As minority communities suffer disproportionately from coronavirus and economic instability, the Trump Administration has quietly destroyed legislation that gave these communities a voice on crucial environmental issues.
Predictably, the oil industry celebrated these changes to NEPA, with the head of the American Petroleum Institute saying that “We feel if we're going to get our economy moving again post-pandemic that this kind of permitting reform is going to be necessary.” Environmental groups such as the National Resources Defense Council opposed Trump’s actions, arguing that the President aimed to silence the voice of communities of color affected by harmful federal projects. Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to reverse Trump’s rollbacks of environmental regulations if elected, presumably including NEPA. Trump’s weakening of NEPA is yet another example of his assault on America’s environment, causing millions of people to suffer from chemicals in their air and water, and billions of people to suffer from the climate crisis in the present and the future.