Today, the president is expected to sign a far-reaching executive order under the guise of “economic emergency,” exempting large, intrusive, highly polluting and destructive projects from public scrutiny and environmental guardrails in place since 1970 under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Other laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, may be waived as well.
NEPA requires detailed environmental analysis of federally permitted projects including pipelines, oil and gas leasing, highways, federal timber harvest, and more. The law also requires the federal government to solicit input from local communities on these decisions – central to the ideals of democracy. But NEPA does much more than that. The law helps ensure worker safety in new power plants, helps prevent discriminatory siting of highways and pipelines, and ensures that federal land managers take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of road construction, timber harvest, and fossil fuel development.
As the country and the world battle a generation-defining pandemic that has claimed over 100,000 American lives, this executive order would increase the public mortality risk due to COVID-19. Increased air pollution is in the DNA of today’s executive order: A Harvard study found that a small increase of just one microgram of fine particulate matter per cubic meter increased the COVID-19 death rate by a whopping 15 percent. Waiving the requirements of NEPA would dramatically increase the likelihood that more people will be sickened by poor air quality stemming from federal projects.
And amid the nation’s tormented rise in opposition to discriminatory police brutality, this increased death rate will disproportionately affect communities of color. These communities are too often exposed to dangerous levels of pollution through vocation or residence. Over 1.8 million Latinx people live within a half-mile of oil and gas facilities, and 68 percent of all African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. NEPA ensures these disproportionate effects to communities of color are considered prior to federal approval.
“This recent executive action cements the Trump administration’s legacy as the most callous and brutal regime in modern times,” said Susan Jane Brown, Wildlands Program Director with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The Trump administration has failed to protect Americans’ public health, failed to protect the civil rights of Black people and other people of color, and now will fail all of us by abandoning this sensible policy that requires federal agencies to look before they leap. Contrary to the president’s sham rationalizations, robust environmental reviews would play an integral part in a just economic recovery following the coronavirus crisis. Undermining NEPA will only further marginalize communities and deepen structural inequities.”