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President Donald Trump is expected to announce Wednesday his revamping of the National Environmental Protection Law (NEPA) , to expedite permitting for oil pipeline construction. (Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Flickr/cc)

Steamrolling Rights of People and Planet, Trump Finalizes Rule Weakening Bedrock Environmental Law

"This is a clear attempt to silence and sideline people to make it easier for industry to pollute our communities," said the NRDC. "We will not let it stand."

Julia Conley

Environmental defenders on Wednesday accused the Trump administration of trampling the rights of frontline communities as it finalized plans to weaken the law known as "the Magna Carta of environmental legislation."

President Donald Trump is expected to announce at a campaign stop in Atlanta Wednesday the rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970 and requires government agencies to conduct a thorough review of the environmental impacts of infrastructure projects before approving them.

"Public comments result in better environmental and health outcomes. They draw from the lived experiences and long histories of communities harmed by previous land use decisions. We call on the president to rescind this ill-conceived rulemaking out of respect for communities and the environment."
—Lauren Pagel, Earthworks

The law also allows community members and green groups to provide feedback on planned infrastructure projects. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called the weakening of NEPA an attempt to silence community stakeholders, many of whom have faced decades of pollution from chemical plants, highways, and oil pipelines in or near their neighborhoods.

"This is a clear attempt to silence and sideline people to make it easier for industry to pollute our communities. We will not let it stand," said Gina McCarthy, president of the NRDC and a former EPA administrator. "People have a right to weigh in before a highway project tears up their neighborhood or a pipeline goes through their backyard. Steamrolling their concerns will mean more polluted air, more contaminated water, more health threats, and more environmental destruction." 

Under Trump's proposal, the administration is expected to reduce the types and number of projects that will be subject to review. Deadlines of one to two years will be set for completing environmental reviews, according to the New York Times. 

Agencies will no longer be required to consider the "cumulative" or indirect effects a project will have on the environment, such as a pipeline's long-term contribution to planet-heating fossil fuel emissions, and will only have to analyze "reasonable foreseeable" effects.

The dismantling of the law "is a win for corruption, a win for polluters, and a win for those that profit off the destruction of our planet," said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Everyone else loses."

The finalization of the rule follows a number of victories for environmental protection campaigners, including Indigenous people who have long strived to keep the oil and gas industries from constructing pipelines across fresh water sources and on tribal lands. 

A federal judge last week ordered Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline and empty it of oil by August 5, saying federal regulators must conduct an environmental review before the project continues.

The U.S. Supreme Court also blocked the administration's effort to allow the Keystone XL pipeline last week, upholding a lower court ruling that said the administration had violated the Endangered Species Act in allowing the project to proceed. Hours earlier, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy cancelled their plans to construct the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, citing delays and costs.  

"It's no surprise that shortly after Indigenous-led movements to stop oil and gas pipelines won three major victories in 24 hours, Trump and the oil industry would double down on a devious plan to silence their opponents," said Lisa Ramsden, senior climate campaigner for Greenpeace USA. "It's time for Congress to stand up to Trump and his oil executive buddies and fight to protect our communities."

After the series of defeats for one of the Trump administration's favored industries, the nonprofit organization Earthworks said the president is intent on running "roughshod over our basic values."

The rollback of NEPA is "an attempt to deliberately silence people in decisions that immediately impact their lives," said Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks. "Public comments result in better environmental and health outcomes. They draw from the lived experiences and long histories of communities harmed by previous land use decisions. We call on the president to rescind this ill-conceived rulemaking out of respect for communities and the environment."

Greenpeace pointed out that Trump is rolling back one of the country's bedrock environmental laws while also making it easier for corporate polluters to turn a profit while communities are battling the coronavirus pandemic—a public health crisis that researchers say is exacerbated by high levels of air pollution. 

"In the middle of a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in this country, our government should be doing everything it can to protect public health. Communities of color are already over-exposed to toxic pollution on the job, in their homes, and at school, putting them at greater risk of dying from Covid-19," said Ramsden. "But the Trump administration has been more than willing to let Black and Brown people die while they put their pro-polluter agenda into overdrive."

Amid the pandemic, said McCarthy, "now more than ever our leaders should be helping people breathe easier, not handing out favors to oil drillers, pipeline developers and other polluters."

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