Environmental Policy's Political Pendulum
“People came up — grown men that had never cried, even when they were a baby — they were standing behind me when I signed that bill at the White House, and they were crying. They were crying — because we gave their life back to them.” - Donald Trump
The United States is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. Unemployment is at record high levels. None of this has stopped President Trump from engaging in yet another attack on America’s environmental laws. President Trump may be nearing the end of his presidential term, but his attack on NEPA’s environmental regulations (which has been described as the administration’s most audacious yet) demonstrates the futility of relying on a political solution for climate change.
President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law in 1970. NEPA requires the federal government to issue environmental impact statements in order to take into consideration a project’s environmental impacts before proceeding with that project. For example, if the construction of a new airport would put a local creek at risk, the federal government would have to take that into consideration and possibly build the airport elsewhere.
In July 2020, the White House unilaterally changed its interpretation of NEPA, allowing for the approval process for construction projects to be sped up. Under the president’s new guidelines, the time limit for approval of a construction project is capped at between one and two years, and it will also require federal agencies to provide a list of projects that won’t need any approval process at all. Perhaps most dangerous of all, the new guidelines will stop federal agencies from having to consider the impact of a project on climate change.
This rollback is sadly not an isolated incident. Trump has rolled back environmental rules governing everything from clean energy to rare birds. In 2019, Trump got rid of Obama’s clean power plan, replacing it with a new set of watered-down rules. That same year, Trump also helped oil companies by loosening environmental protections for sage grouse, thus making it easier for oil companies to drill on public lands.
Some Good News (and Bad)
Because this new regulatory change came so late in Trump’s presidency, it’s possible that a future Democratic president could reverse these changes if Congress agrees. Given the ambitious climate change goals that Joe Biden has included in his platform, it’s likely that these regulations will be reversed. The problem is that they could always be reinstated by a future administration. If Joe Biden takes one step forward, his successor can always take two steps back.
One nation, Denmark, has found a way around this problem. A Danish law, ironically also passed in July, will require all governments, including future ones, to set legally binding targets for reducing carbon emissions. But as welcome as such a law may be in the United States, the future of the planet is too important to bet on a piece of foreign legislation being successfully imported here, especially when no politician has called for such a law.