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Trump Attacks the National Environmental Policy Act

Slashing Environmental Regulations

When Donald Trump began his 2016 presidential campaign, he vowed to slash environmental regulations to expedite growth within America’s fossil fuel industry. To fulfill his promise, one of his first actions made was the removal of the United States from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which was an international commitment made as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to adopt a series of mitigation, adaptation, and finance strategies in an effort to reduce the impact of climate change. Instead of working alongside world leaders to reduce coal, oil, and natural gas production in order to limit carbon emissions, Trump defied the United Nations and the Paris Agreement by pledging to increase fossil fuel production. After the U.S. formally abandoned the Paris Agreement that was ratified by 195 countries, the Trump administration continued to scrap many environmental regulations that were established by the Obama administration.

On June 1, 2017, President Trump took action to officially remove the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. At a press conference held at the White House Rose Garden, Trump announced how the, “The Paris Climate Accord [was] simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers — who I love — and taxpayers to absorb the cost in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” He stressed how the international agreement would have established draconian financial and economic burdens that would have destroyed the American economy. While many energy experts and economists vehemently disagreed with Trump, the administration moved forward with plans to become the only nation in the world that has not joined the agreement.

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Top Down Approach

In addition to abandoning the Paris Agreement, Trump also gutted numerous other environmental regulations for the benefit of the fossil fuel industry. He signed executive orders to approve controversial oil pipelines and executive orders to reevaluate the Clean Water Rule and repeal the Clean Power Plan. Moreover, in 2018, Trump’s Department of the Interior moved forward with plans to allow oil drilling to take place in nearly all U.S. waters, which is the biggest expansion of offshore oil and gas leasing ever proposed. In 2019, the Department of the Interior completed plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to gas and oil drilling. In 2020, Trump unveiled even more rollbacks in environmental protections to benefit the fossil fuel industry with plans to dramatically overhaul the landmark National Environmental Policy Act.

Undeterred by the consequences of global warming or climate change, President Trump has continued to rollback fundamental environmental rules and regulations to fulfill campaign promises related to growth in the fossil fuel sector. To the delight of many fossil fuel lobbyists, Trump has announced how his administration has been working to dismantle the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act to reduce obstacles related to oil and gas infrastructure development. Under the current ruling, all major federal construction projects must complete a mandatory review, or environmental impact statement, if they’re expected to have a significant effect on surrounding ecosystems (Burns, 2020). New regulations proposed by the Trump administration would significantly reduce the scope and timeline needed for environmental review, which could streamline the development of oil and gas pipeline projects. Moreover, cumulative environmental impacts, like how fossil fuel projects would contribute to climate change, would be eliminated from the National Environmental Policy Act requirements.

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National Environmental Policy Act

Signed into law in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the National Environmental Policy Act has been characterized as a tool to pressure the federal government to develop a more sustainable energy policy. The law requires all federal agencies to go through a formal process before breaking ground on any project that is anticipated to have substantial impact on the environment. Over the years, the law has frequently been used in conjunction with the Administrative Procedure Act, certain environmental statutes, and other fundamental energy laws to stop or delay fossil fuel energy projects (Reitze, 2012). Environmental advocates and renewable energy companies have supported the National Environmental Policy Act as a method to discourage the development of new fossil fuel projects because of the federal regulation’s burdensome environmental review process.

For decades, the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, private fossil fuel advocacy organizations, and several transportation groups had been seeking action to dismantle the National Environmental Policy Act. In a November 2019 letter addressed to Mary Neumayr, the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, representatives from the fossil fuel industry, construction firms, and other economic development organizations complained about the lengthy review process that takes an average of nearly six years, increases project costs, and produces hundreds of pages of documents. Following this formal complaint, the Trump administration vowed to take action. Under a new Trump administration proposal, the National Environmental Policy Act will be subject to page limits and must be finished in under two years.

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Regulation Rollbacks

Despite ambiguous presidential campaign promises to “promote clean air and water,” while also promoting economic growth, the New York Times has identified 58 separate environmental protection rollbacks that have been finalized by the Trump administration, along with 37 more that are still in progress (Burns, 2020). Most of these rollbacks have been implemented to support the fossil fuel industry, which lobbied heavily in favor of Trump during the 2016 election. While environmental experts and public health advocates say that these rollbacks will be felt mainly over the long term, some research has shown that particulate pollution has already started to get worse, reversing many years of environmental progress conducted by previous administrations. Because of regulatory changes that have allowed fossil fuel companies to increase emissions, a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon has estimated that 9,700 more Americans died as a result of air pollution in 2018 than in 2016 (Burns, 2020).

Democratic members of Congress have labeled Trump’s environmental rollbacks as a sellout of clean air, clean water, and the environment in general. On the other hand, many Republicans say that environmental regulations have become an obstacle to economic progress. For example, a 2003 federal report found that the National Environmental Policy Act typically adds a cost of between $250,000 to $2,000,000 to a project (Reitze, 2012). Moreover, when a climate change analysis is required, the cost of completing the process can rise substantially.

Since 1990, federal agencies have filed approximately 450 to 600 National Environmental Policy Act permits each year (Reitze, 2012). Environmental advocates and public health experts say that the enhanced environmental protection achieved as a result of National Environmental Policy Act greatly outweighs the cost and length of the permit process. Conversely, organizations like the Independent Petroleum Association of America say that the burdensome process has become increasingly detrimental for economic growth and has vastly strayed from the original scope outlined by President Nixon. Dan Naatz, the senior vice president of Government Relations and Political Affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America says that, “Although the Independent Petroleum Association of America and our members recognize the important role the National Environmental Policy Act plays in public land policy, for many years we have seen the law being abused by environmentalists with extreme agendas to delay and halt various multiple-use activities on federal lands, including oil and gas production.”

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Fossil Fuel Industry Support

Thomas Pyle, a former Koch Industries lobbyist and current president of the American Energy Alliance has also argued that the National Environmental Policy Act has been abused by environmentalists. He says that, “Radical environmental groups have twisted the intent behind the National Environmental Policy Act and leveraged the legal system to their advantage in a coordinated effort to slow and stop progress and I welcome the news that President Trump plans stop them in his commitment to make America great again.” The American Energy Alliance is funded by the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch Family Foundation, and Exxon Mobil, which all benefit financially from less regulations related to the fossil fuel industry.

In 2017, the National Association of Manufacturers, whose members include companies like oil giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil, launched an attack against regulations targeting the fossil fuel industry. Jay Timmons, the organization’s President and CEO, has applauded President Trump’s deregulation initiatives as exactly the type of modernization needed to build infrastructure that Americans desperately need. As fossil fuel production has increased dramatically in recent years, so have issues related to pipeline bottlenecks. As 2019 became a record year for the U.S. oil and gas industry, fossil fuel producers have been struggling to transport more oil and gas through the U.S. because of constraints related to existing pipeline infrastructure.

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Pipeline Congestion

As congested pipelines continue to cause concerns, oil and gas producers are hoping to move more oil by rail until the Trump administration is able to give the green light to new pipeline projects by reducing the environmental review process. Fossil fuel industry advocates say that environmental regulations that have hindered the development of pipelines have actually increased environmental risks. Pipeline bottlenecks have caused some pipelines to burst, while transporting oil by rail has been known to add additional risks. Jammed pipelines and the transportation of oil by rail could result in long-term challenges and new environmental catastrophes that environmental advocates had hoped to prevent in the first place with lengthy regulations. The shortage of new pipelines has been particularly challenging for oil producers working in the Athabasca tar sands, as well as the new boomtowns of West Texas.

Environmental Battle

Environmental advocates and Democratic-controlled state governments have continued to fight the Trump administration’s attempts at deregulation. In August 2019, more than 20 states sued the Environmental Protection Agency over a rollback of climate change rules for fossil fuel power plants (Burns, 2020). After the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration added a rule that revoked states’ rights to set vehicle emissions standards, 22 Democratic states sued the division within the Department of Transportation. A similar fate is expected with regards to the new changes proposed to the National Environmental Policy Act. If more lawsuits come as a result of this environmental debate, that could be bad news for fossil fuel producers, since court battles would likely exacerbate the long construction delays that the rollbacks sought to end in the first place.

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Trump’s Personal Vendetta

Since the National Environmental Policy Act was first established, it has only undergone one change. In 1983, the White House Council on Environmental Quality limited the used of worst-case scenarios in project reviews (Friedman, 2020). Despite the fact that fossil fuel lobbyists have consistently said that environmentalists have reorganized the intent of this law to attack the industry, no major changes have occurred to modify its original scope. Natural resource specialists and legal experts say that weakening this law would also weaken the protections for clean air, clean water, and wildlife across the nation.

Michael Gerrard, the director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said that undermining this law, particularly with regards to eliminating the need to consider climate change, would lead to more pipelines and other projects that worsen global emissions (Friedman, 2020). At a personal level, President Trump had been involved with the National Environmental Policy Act as a New York real estate developer. The environmental review requirements halted Trump’s proposed Seven Springs golf course, an issue that he still brings up. With his new goal of overhauling the environmental law, Trump appears to be seeking vengeance for his development that was denied due to environmental concerns, while also seeking to fulfill his 2016 campaign promises.

Sources

Burns, K. (2020). “Trump has created a loophole to allow pipelines to avoid environmental review.” Vox.

Drugmand, D. (2020). “Fossil Fuel Interests Applaud Trump Admin’s Weakening of Major Environmental Law.” DESMOG.

Friedman, L, (2020). “Trump Rule Would Exclude Climate Change in Infrastructure Planning.” The New York Times.

Hannon, E. (2020). “Trump Proposes Scrapping Federal Environmental Review Before Oil Extraction and Mining Projects Begin.” Slate.

Reitze, A. (2012). “The Role of NEPA in Fossil Fuel Resource Development and Use in the Western United States.” Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review: Volume 39, Issue 2.

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