Trump Tells Agencies to Cut Environment Reviews, Citing ‘Economic Emergency’

Changes could hurt communities of color, which are more likely to live with pollution due to decades of environmental racism.

The Trump administration continued to weaken core environmental protections in the United State by announcing a pair of policies to cut reviews for large infrastructure projects and downplay the health benefits of rules to curb pollution.

Bakken / Dakota Access Oil Pipeline
One of the policies came as an executive order from Donald Trump instructing agencies to use emergency authorities to bypass bedrock environmental laws and speed federal approvals for highways and oil and gas pipelines. Photo by Tony Webster.

Both changes could disproportionately hurt communities of color, which are far more likely to live with pollution because of decades of environmental racism. They come after a week of nationwide protests over police killings of Black Americans.

The proposals could also make it easier for the government to ignore the climate crisis in making decisions.

One of the policies came as an executive order from Donald Trump instructing agencies to use emergency authorities to bypass bedrock environmental laws and speed federal approvals for highways and oil and gas pipelines. The order said it is meant to accelerate the recovery from the “dramatic downturn” in the economy and high unemployment from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“In light of this and other developments, I have determined that, without intervention, the United States faces the likelihood of a potentially protracted economic recovery with persistent high unemployment,” the order said.

“A public health crisis is not an excuse to drill, mine and pave our public lands, and the American people won’t fall for it,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director of the Center for Western Priorities. “This order will almost certainly increase environmental injustice across America..”

Research and history clearly demonstrate that pollution, ecological hazards, and climate disasters have the worst impacts on people of color, indigenous Americans and the poor.

Critics immediately questioned Trump’s authority to implement the executive order, which aims to override the normal procedures under laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (Nepa), the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

Joel Mintz, a former EPA enforcement and supervisory attorney, said: “It is far from clear that the president has the legal authority to do this.”

Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency chief, Andrew Wheeler, on Thursday also proposed new guidelines for how the agency weighs the costs that a regulation places on an industry and its customers versus the health benefits it provides to the public.

The proposal applies to rules under the Clean Air Act. Wheeler said the agency intends to complete similar proposals for water, land and chemical rules within the next three years.

The agency typically takes into account all the benefits of a regulation, even if they are unintentional. For example, a rule targeting mercury from coal plants also reduced particle pollution, as well as carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to the climate crisis. In deciding whether the rule was necessary, the agency tallied all the benefits of each reduction and stacked them up against the costs the industry would incur.

Wheeler said the agency will still calculate and consider those co-benefits but will not use them to justify future regulations.

Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies – which represents state and local air regulators – said that as described by Wheeler, “the rule cuts out the most important factor to consider when the agency is trying to decide whether an action protecting public health is worth it, which is public health.

“It’s like trying to decide whether to quit smoking based only on the price of a pack of cigarettes.”

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