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Trump Waives Environmental Reviews, Citing Pandemic Economic Emergency

President Trump proposes changes to the National Environmental Policy Act in January. His latest executive order allows agencies to waive requirements of the bedrock law to speed up infrastructure projects.
Evan Vucci
President Trump proposes changes to the National Environmental Policy Act in January. His latest executive order allows agencies to waive requirements of the bedrock law to speed up infrastructure projects.

President Trump is directing federal agencies to bypass requirements of some of the country's most significant environmental laws. The stated goal is to fast-track big new infrastructure projects to boost the economy, which has been hit hard by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. But critics question the legality of the move, and say it would shut down input from those affected by such projects.

Trump's order directs federal agencies to look for ways to avoid time-consuming processes and build transportation and energy infrastructure, including highways, oil and gas pipelines, and fossil fuel export terminals.

Usually big projects like these require long approval processes under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

President Nixon signed NEPA into law in 1970. It requires agencies to examine the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and consider alternatives. It also gives people a chance to see how a project might affect them and weigh in on what decision the government should make. If a project affects an endangered animal or plant the Endangered Species Act might also be involved.

But the President is now directing agencies to look for ways to work around these laws.

"Unnecessary regulatory delays will deny our citizens opportunities for jobs and economic security, keeping millions of Americans out of work and hindering our economic recovery from the national emergency," wrote the President in his executive order.

Previous presidents have exercised similar emergency powers but in more limited ways.

For example, in 2014 during the Obama administration, the National Park Service got an emergency exception to build an evacuation route at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park because the existing route was going to be covered by lava within 45 days. Even with the emergency, the agency was required to involve the public and afterwards had to go through the full NEPA process.

Developers and industries have long complained these federal processes progress too slowly.

"Today's executive order provides an opportunity to jumpstart our economic recovery by ensuring that we are rebuilding and modernizing with American-made materials, equipment and jobs," said National Mining Association President & CEO Rich Nolan. He specifically mentioned, "copper for wiring, metallurgical coal required for steelmaking or zinc for galvanization."

Environmental groups were quick to criticize the order.

"Instead of trying to ease the pain of a nation in crisis, President Trump is focused on easing the pain of polluters," said Gina McCarthy, a former EPA administrator who now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council. She called the order an abuse of emergency powers and said eliminating environmental reviews is "utterly senseless".

The order also brought criticism from Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"President Trump is dealing another blow to the Black community," said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. He referenced the Black Lives Matter protests underway around the country in his written statement.

"Gutting NEPA takes away one of the few tools communities of color have to protect themselves and make their voices heard on federal decisions impacting them," said Grijalva.

Critics believe Trump is using the cover of the pandemic to weaken environmental laws he's long opposed. His administration already has proposed speeding up NEPA reviews that he has called "outrageously slow and burdensome." And there have been dozens of proposals to roll back a wide range of environmental regulations. Another one from the Environmental Protection Agency Thursday would make it harder to justify limits on air pollution.

The President's order gives agencies 30 days to provide a summary report of projects that have been expedited. Some environmentalists say the order appears to be so broad that it may be unlawful. That means that, like past directives, this one could end up in court.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.