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Know the West

Trump targets a bedrock environmental law

Three years of rollbacks have taken a toll, without delivering real benefits.

 

“I’m approving new dishwashers that give you more water so you can actually wash and rinse your dishes without having to do it 10 times,” President Donald J. Trump told a crowd in Milwaukee in January. “How about the shower? I have this beautiful head of hair, I need a lot of water. You turn on the water: drip, drip, drip.”

While this may sound like just another Trumpism intended to distract his base from his impeachment troubles, the words nicely encapsulate the administration’s disastrous approach to environmental policy. First, he gins up a false problem. Then he blames the false problem on “regulatory burdens.” Then he wipes out said regulations with complete disregard for any actual benefits or the possible catastrophic consequences.

Trump followed this pattern in January, when he announced one of his most significant rollbacks yet, a drastic weakening of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA — the bedrock law passed during the Nixon era that requires environmental reviews for projects handled by federal agencies.

Trump said the overhaul is necessary because the law imposes interminable delays on infrastructure projects, hampering economic growth. “It takes many, many years to get something built,” he said in an early January speech at the White House. “The builders are not happy. Nobody is happy. It takes 20 years. It takes 30 years. It takes numbers that nobody would even believe.” 

Only about 5% of all reviews take longer than a decade, and less than 1% drag on for 20 years or more.

Maybe nobody would believe them because — like Trump’s assertion that modern toilets must be flushed “15 times” — they simply aren’t true. Every year, the nonpartisan National Association of Environmental Professionals analyzes the implementation of NEPA. The group has found that over the last decade, full environmental impact statements have taken, on average, less than five years to complete. Only about 5% of all reviews take longer than a decade, and less than 1% drag on for 20 years or more. These rare cases can be caused by a project’s complexity, or by delays or changes made by its backers that have nothing to do with NEPA or any other environmental regulations.

Trump isn’t letting facts get in his way, however. The proposed changes would “streamline” reviews, according to the administration, and, most notably, “clarify that effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the result of a lengthy causal chain.”

A project’s potential contribution to climate change, in other words, would be discounted. Indeed, environmental effects will no longer be considered significant — except for the most direct, immediate ones. A proposed highway plowing through a low-income neighborhood, for example, would result in more traffic, leading to more pollution, leading to health problems for residents and exacerbating global warming. But since all of that is “remote in time” and the result of a “lengthy causal chain,” it would not necessarily be grounds to stop or modify the project. By discounting long-term and cumulative impacts, this seemingly simple change would effectively gut a law that has guided federal agencies for a half-century.

That, Trump claims, will speed up approvals and create more jobs. But a look back at the effects of his previous regulatory rollbacks suggests otherwise. 

Since the moment he took office, Trump has been rescinding environmental protections. He drastically diminished Bears Ears National Monument, he tossed out rules protecting water from uranium operations, he threw out limits on methane and mercury emissions, weakened the Clean Water Act, and, more recently, cleared the way for the Keystone XL pipeline, yet again. According to Harvard Law School’s regulatory rollback tracker, the Trump administration has axed or weakened more than 60 measures that protect human and environmental health since he took office.

The White Mesa Uranium Mill, in southeast Utah, laid off a third of its workforce in January despite the Trump administration’s weakening of regulations.
EcoFlight

Trump often boasts that his policies have created 7 million jobs during his term. Correlation, however, does not equal causation. Even as the overall economy has boomed — a trend that was already in place when Trump took office — the sectors that should have benefited the most from Trump’s rollbacks continue to flail.

Trump killed or weakened at least 15 regulations aimed at the coal industry in hopes of bringing back jobs. By nearly every measure, the industry is weaker now than it was when Trump was elected. Trump shrank Bears Ears National Monument to make way for extraction industries and rescinded regulations on uranium in part to help Energy Fuels, a uranium company. But in January, the company laid off one-third of its workforce, including most of the employees at the White Mesa Mill, adjacent to Bears Ears. Nearly every one of the protections that Trump killed were purportedly “burdening” the nation’s mining, logging and drilling industries. Regardless, the number of people working in that sector is down 20% from five years ago.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.1/reckoning-with-history-nepa-transformed-federal-land-management-and-has-fallen-short]

Rolling back environmental regulations will no more create jobs than removing “restrictors” from showerheads will give Donald Trump a thick head of hair — it won’t. It will merely result in more waste, dirtier air and water, and a more rapid plunge into climate catastrophe.

Now, Trump is going after energy-efficient lightbulbs, and his reasoning is as specious as ever. “The new lightbulb costs you five times as much,” he told his followers at the Milwaukee rally, “and it makes you look orange.”

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.