With the Nation in Turmoil, Trump Orders Agencies to Waive Environmental Rules

Hours before trumpeting an economic rebound, the president cited an economic emergency to justify a sweeping rollback of bedrock laws.

When the latest employment data arrived on Friday with unexpected good news, President Donald Trump hailed May’s 13.3 percent unemployment rate, down from 14.7 percent in April, as a sign that his leadership had spurred a comeback. “Really Big Jobs Report,” Trump tweeted. “Great going President Trump (kidding but true)!”

Later, at a press conference to tout the new jobs numbers—which showed a slight uptick in Black unemployment despite the overall gains—Trump said it was “a great day” for George Floyd, who was killed May 25 in police custody in Minneapolis. “Hopefully George is looking down and saying this is a great thing that's happening for our country.”

Aside from its glaring insensitivity, the president’s sunny economic message was at odds with a sweeping rollback of environmental protections he issued just a day earlier. On Thursday, citing a national economic emergency, Trump signed an executive order directing federal agencies to waive permitting requirements for infrastructure projects by tapping into emergency provisions within the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It calls on agency leaders to “use all relevant emergency and other authorities to expedite work on, and completion of, all authorized and appropriated highway and other infrastructure projects” under their purview. It also directs them to deliver, within 30 days, a list of projects they will fast-track. 

The order is consistent with Trump’s years-long campaign “focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays,” the order says. “Unnecessary regulatory delays will deny our citizens opportunities for jobs and economic security, keeping millions of Americans out of work and hindering our economic recovery from the national emergency.”

But environmental groups lambasted the move as a handout to polluting industries and a slap in the face to Black people who experience disproportionate health impacts from pollution and, as a result, from COVID-19. “This is what they do, you know? Cutting the red tape for business at the expense of health, quality of life, and safety of communities,” says Kerene Tayloe, director of federal legislative affairs for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “In one breath, he’s saying this executive order is to help us bounce back, but he’s setting up these communities that are already burdened to be further harmed.”

Mustafa Santiago Ali, a vice president with the National Wildlife Federation and a former EPA environmental justice official, shared a similar reaction with The Verge“When we say we can’t breathe, we are not only talking about the knees on our necks and chokeholds from police, but also the squeezing of life from our lungs brought on by the pollution that the Trump Administration continues to pump into our bodies by the rolling back of the vary laws that are meant to give us justice and access,” he said. 

Other experts said that using an economic downturn to justify waiving environmental reviews and the public input that accompanies them is unprecedented. “These reviews are required by law to protect people from industries that can harm our health and our communities,” said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a statement. “Getting rid of them will hit those who live closest to polluting facilities and highways the hardest—in many of the same communities already suffering the most from the national emergencies at hand.”

The order lacks specifics about which projects could be expedited, but it could include roads, pipelines, electric transmission lines, and mines—all of which impact birds and their habitat. Transmission lines, for example, commonly electrocute Golden Eagles and other raptors, says Nada Culver, vice president of public lands and senior policy counsel for the National Audubon Society. Endangered Whooping Cranes sometimes die in collisions with the lines, which also provide perches for predators of Greater Sage-Grouse, a species in worrisome decline. 

If federal agencies are allowed to use emergency authorities as Trump has directed, those kinds of impacts, along with the damage that building the lines could do to wetlands and other habitat, would be ignored, Culver warns. “The idea for these authorities was to address emergencies, not to provide an excuse for pushing potentially harmful projects forward,” she says. “Considering the impact on communities and the environment, and giving people a voice in decisions that affect their health and safety are not unnecessary regulatory delays, they are critical steps in responsible decision-making.”

For months prior to Thursday’s order the Trump administration has been at work to significantly curtail NEPA, among the nation’s most fundamental environmental laws. NEPA requires agencies to take a hard, scientific look at the environmental impacts of planned projects before approving them. Backed by the fossil fuel, construction, and other industries, the administration has proposed limiting what kinds of impacts agencies have to consider and how long they can take to do so. While that proposal works through the federal rulemaking process, Tayloe says the executive order achieves its purpose on a faster timeline. “This articulates their goal even more clearly,” she says. 

Still, like other Trump administration rollbacks, experts say the executive order could be vulnerable to legal challenges as a result of its interpretation of what constitutes an emergency under NEPA and other laws. And environmental groups appeared ready to exploit that vulnerability. “We will not let this stand,” McCarthy said.