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Groups Denounce Gutting of Environmental Rules 'When Trump Thinks No One is Paying Attention'

Order denounced as "latest in string of outlandish authoritarian acts" from the U.S. president.

Flares burning off gas at Belridge Oil Field and hydraulic fracking site which is the fourth largest oil field in California. (Photo: Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order Thursday waiving environmental regulatory hurdles to infrastructure, energy, and other projects, a move that critics charge is another sign of "authoritarianism" from the White House.

"Allowing the fossil fuel industry to dig, drill, and frack unbounded by NEPA amounts to a targeted strike on people of color and low-income communities most likely to be impacted by these hazardous practices."
—Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch

"This executive order is the latest in string of outlandish authoritarian acts from a president that is quickly spiraling deeper into the realm of anti-democratic, anti-law, anti-Constitution dictatorship," Food & Water Action executive director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement. "This particular action is an egregious attempt to bail out the flailing fossil fuel industry by allowing it to completely bypass benchmark environmental rules at a moment when Trump thinks no one is paying attention."

Trump's order would allow federal agencies to ignore regulations like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when weighing approval of projects like pipelines, new highways, mines, and other projects. The administration is justifying the move as necessary due to the economic crisis sparked by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

It's unclear if Trump has the legal authority to force such a change, Environmental Protection Network member Joel Mintz said in a statement. Minz, a former EPA Enforcement and Supervisory attorney and current law professor at the Nova Southeastern University College of Law, said that NEPA is "a clear directive from Congress to federal agencies that the president cannot ignore or change unilaterally."

More than that, Minz said, it's a generally bad idea.

"This is also very bad public policy," said Minz. "Pipelines and other infrastructure can do great environmental harm. Their impact should be carefully examined, as NEPA requires, before they are allowed to go forward. "

As the Washington Post reported, the order's dubious legality could result in immediate court challenges:

Thomas Jensen, a partner at the firm Perkins Coie, said in an email that any decisions made in response to the executive order could be challenged in court. He noted that the National Environmental Policy Act was enacted 50 years ago partly to prevent arbitrary federal decisions such as building highways through parks and communities of color, and that the current administration cannot simply set aside laws aimed at protecting vulnerable Americans or the environment.

"I will not be surprised to see many observers comparing this move—declaring an emergency to shield agency decisions from the public—to the order to clear Lafayette Square on Monday evening," Jensen said, referring to actions in a Washington park this week. "It's just one more face of authoritarian ideology, with a clear link to issues of race and equality and government accountability."

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) tweeted that the order "silences Black and brown voices fighting pollution in their own communities" and noted that it came during a nationwide uprising over the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers last week. 

Susan Jane Brown, the Wildlands Program director for the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement that "robust environmental reviews would play an integral part in a just economic recovery following the coronavirus crisis," making the rollback a catastrophe.

"This recent executive action cements the Trump administration's legacy as the most callous and brutal regime in modern times," said Brown.

Food & Water Watch's Hauter agreed. 

"Allowing the fossil fuel industry to dig, drill, and frack unbounded by NEPA amounts to a targeted strike on people of color and low-income communities most likely to be impacted by these hazardous practices," she said. "It is a strike on environmental justice, climate stability and a livable planet."

"We are doing all in our power to stop this malicious, authoritarian president," Hauter added, "and we won't stop until he is stopped."

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