As activists and experts descended on the U.S. Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C. Tuesday for a public forum and rally about the Trump administration's recent attack on one of the nation's landmark environmental laws, the advocacy group Public Citizen parked a truck with a massive screen nearby to play a video of a top official morphing into a "swamp monster" on loop for eight hours.
"The video, accompanied by spooky music, will show that it's difficult to distinguish between Interior Secretary David Bernhardt—a former oil and gas lobbyist—and a creature of the Washington, D.C., 'swamp' of lobbyists and corporate cronies that President Donald Trump derided as a candidate but now embraces wholeheartedly," Public Citizen explained.
We’re blasting this video all day at full volume directly outside the Interior Department.
An oil & gas lobbyist should not be in charge of protecting our public lands. pic.twitter.com/KuV8KukUoQ
— Public Citizen (@Public_Citizen) February 25, 2020
The protests and hearing (pdf) Tuesday centered on the Trump administration's proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The historic law signed by President Richard Nixon 50 years ago forces federal agencies to produce environmental assessments for major planned actions, including permits for infrastructure projects like fossil fuel pipelines.
Advocacy groups that have raised concerns with the administration's proposal reiterated those critiques Tuesday. Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica said in a statement that NEPA "ensures communities have a right to know the environmental and fiscal impacts, and whether less destructive alternatives exist," and Trump's attack on the law "silences the communities across the nation fighting corporate polluters."
"If this rollback happens, it will weaken communities' efforts to protect their air, water, and public health," Pica warned. "We must not allow this critical tool for public engagement to be eliminated by the businesses determined to destroy our environment for profit. We will not tolerate efforts to dismantle our bedrock environmental laws."
This administration is gutting our bedrock environmental law to line Big Oil's pockets.
— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) February 25, 2020
As a Natural Resources Defense Council blog post outlined Monday, the Trump administration's proposed changes include: limiting the actions covered by NEPA, restricting the geographic scope of a review, scrapping conflict-of-interest requirements, and curtailing a directive that agencies rigorously consider reasonable alternatives.
Greenpeace USA senior climate campaigner John Noël said in a statement Tuesday that the changes—which would mean agencies don't have to consider the climate impacts of new infrastructure projects—would significantly curb input from communities that would be most affected by such development.
"Fossil fuel infrastructure projects are overwhelmingly located in underrepresented, working class communities," Noël said. "No oil company wants to put an oil well on top of a Trump golf course, or a fracked gas compressor station next to Mar a Lago—they're building pipelines through Indigenous territory and refineries next to Black and Brown neighborhoods. Based on its attempts to roll back NEPA, it's clear the Trump administration views these communities as sacrifice zones."
"Gutting NEPA is an attempt to silence the communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel industry pollution," he charged. "If Trump truly cared about clean air and water for anyone other than his billionaire buddies, he'd strengthen laws like NEPA. Instead, he's handing out favors to oil and gas executives like candy."
It's time to look at the facts and stop vilifying environmental reviews.
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Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, as well as leaders of environmental and labor groups spoke at the D.C. rally Tuesday afternoon.
“I come from the scrafice zone known as Texas... NEPA currently has to take into account extremes climate change.” Yvette of @tejasbarrios and @The_MFN speaking on disasters in the Gulf and the need to #ProtectNEPA and #ProtectYourVoice pic.twitter.com/kv70DlO6is
— EYCEJ (@EYCEJ) February 25, 2020
"It's NEPA that tells us whether a project's gonna dirty our air, dirty our water, whether it's gonna bulldoze over communities that have been there for generations. It tells us what will happen and allows us to fight!" — FOE president @erichpica #ProtectYourVoice #ProtectNEPA pic.twitter.com/LrojWUTuqE
— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) February 25, 2020
— Sierra Club (@SierraClub) February 25, 2020
“I’m here to #ProtectNEPA because it gives communities like my hometown the chance to review the findings of environmental impact statements that should offer pertinent information about health and environmental risks that come along with potential projects.” - @sstrangetruthh pic.twitter.com/JGPASACCuN
— CCAEJ (@CCAEJ) February 25, 2020
— Moms Clean Air Force #ClimateAction (@CleanAirMoms) February 25, 2020
"We urge CEQ to recall the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. BP was categorically excluded from #NEPA review. As a result, the impact of a blowout was never considered. Gulf communities continue to pay the price 10 years on." — Sandra Purohit, @e2org #ProtectYourVoice #ProtectNEPA pic.twitter.com/0tFpdDGogt
— NRDC (@NRDC) February 25, 2020
Grijalva, who also testified at the public hearing, said in a statement Tuesday that "the administration's efforts to gut NEPA through this proposed rule will make it easier for corporate polluters to hide the climate impacts of major projects, including oil and gas projects."
"NEPA's also a critical civil rights tool—it gives all Americans a voice in federal decision-making by allowing communities to be informed and weigh in on major proposed projects affecting their communities," the congressman added. "When the NEPA process is cut short or weakened, ill-conceived projects advance that can have devastating public health and environmental consequences for American communities."