Drain the Swamp: Trump’s NEPA rollback strips power from communities and gives it to corps

  • Published on January 13th, 2020

During the 2016 campaign, the Mouth That Roared repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Many people foolishly thought he meant the lobbyists, suck-ups, ass kissers, and finaglers who work behind the scenes to create policies benefiting special interest groups and wealthy campaign donors.

Drain the swamp EPA


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Nothing could be further from the truth. What he really meant by “the swamp” was the maze of bureaucratic agencies that has grown up since the days of FDR and the New Deal. The notion behind those agencies is that they will be staffed by experts who can advise the government on a range of topics that affect the country, from space exploration to climate change, energy policy, and a myriad of other things. What he who shall remain nameless really had in mind was eviscerating the government bureaucracy that acts as a referee when the interests of various segments of society collide.

One of the things that sticks in the craw of our alleged president is NEPA — the National Environmental Policy Act signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970. It requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of a major project long before construction begins and to include the public in the process.

At a glitzy press conference in Washington on January 9, Trump thundered in his typical bombastic style that his maladministration would make sweeping changes to NEPA in order to cut through red tape and get started rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure. He boasted the changes would allow approvals for much needed projects to happen in “a small fraction of the time” it takes when all the dictates of NEPA are followed.

“We will not stop until our nation’s gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again,” Trump proclaimed, according to The Washington Post. “It used to be the envy of the world, and now we’re like a third-world country. It’s really sad.” He stopped just short of calling America a shithole country, one of his favorite epithets. He was accompanied by a cheering throng of construction industry executives and labor union leaders.

For some inexplicable reason, none of those in attendance can imagine the thousands upon thousands of well paid jobs the renewable energy industry can create, according to Stanford professor Mark Jacobson and the promoters of the Green New Deal. All they can see is America in the 1930s, when blast furnaces lit up the nighttime sky over Pittsburgh and towering smokestacks filled the air with deadly pollution. That’s when America was great and by God it can be great again if it just poisons enough of its own citizens.

Pros & Cons

Reaction to the pseudo-president’s action was predictably mixed. In an email to CleanTechnica, the Consumer Energy Alliance said “it applauds the White House Council on Environmental Quality for taking this first and important step towards modernizing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Over the past 40 years, NEPA has become synonymous with uncertainty, delay, and wasted investment. The delay and dollars lost in the NEPA process is time that American families and small businesses are not working and adds to the cost of the energy they need to sustain the American way of life.”

It went on to say, “We applaud the Administration’s decision to strengthen NEPA by introducing efficiency to a stringent regulatory process that is the envy of the world, while removing obstacles to developing infrastructure projects that are crucial to the health of the entire American economy.” Its president, David Holt, added, “The regulations released today, when implemented, demonstrate that environmental stewardship, American jobs, and affordable energy rates can and must go hand-in-hand.”

And who or what is the Consumer Energy Alliance? According to KochVsClean.com, “The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) is an industry front group established to influence public perception and government regulation in favor of extractive energy industries. CEA specializes in coordinating “astroturfing” efforts that are frequently funded by oil and gas interests. The group was founded by Republican lobbyist Michael Whatley of HBW Resources, a leading proponent of the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Canadian tar sands industry.” Oh.

One of the primary beneficiaries of the changes to NEPA will be pipeline industries. The new rules declare that NEPA will no longer apply to private projects with little government money involved. Pipelines fit nicely into that revised definition. Weakening NEPA means local communities — especially Native American tribes — will have even less input into the pipeline permitting process than they did before. So indigenous people will get a soap-suds enema from the federal government once again.

We also heard from the American Sustainable Business Council, which condemned the proposal to roll back environmental protections in the National Environmental Policy Act, saying it will exacerbates the climate crisis. “The proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act will weaken the bedrock environmental law’s ability to ensure that federally permitted infrastructure projects consider impacts on air, water and wildlife,” the email said.

“Contrary to claims from the administration and the Chamber of Commerce that the rule change will be good for the economy, it will have negative consequence for businesses across sectors,” said Jeffrey Hollender, CEO of ASBC. “Our planet is on fire and this move simply adds fuel to the fire.” Channeling Greta Thunberg, the group’s head, Jeffrey Hollender, added, “Contrary to claims from the administration and the Chamber of Commerce that the rule change will be good for the economy, it will have negative consequence for businesses across sectors. Our planet is on fire and this move simply adds fuel to the fire.”

And who or what is the American Sustainable Business Council? According to CrunchBase, “ASBC is the leading business advocacy group working to implement public policies that build a sustainable economy.” Hmmm, don’t see any hint of pipeline money in that description.

Bruce Huber, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, told The Post in an email that because the regulations do not alter the underlying law, agencies are still required to report the environmental impacts of actions they take that significantly affect “the quality of the human environment. Today’s proposal will involve changes to the way the law is implemented, and it will be up to the federal courts to decide whether those changes are faithful to the law.”

Remote In Time

The changes to NEPA would also excuse permitting officials from taking into account long term environmental impacts. “Effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain,” the proposal says. In other words, what some farmer in Michigan puts into a stream that ultimately flows into the Great Lakes need be given no weight at all because it is “remote.” Similarly, actions that may lead to global heating of sea level rise three decades from now can safely by ignored.

That’s the outcome the National Association of Manufacturers wants. Jay Timmons, its president, says his group has called for “exactly” the changes proposed by the White House because his members’ efforts “should be used for building the infrastructure Americans desperately need, not wasted on mountains of paperwork and endless delays.” Damn the forest fires and rising sea levels. Full speed ahead! Worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Today it’s build, baby, build and to hell with the consequences. Some people might suggest such attitudes are how the world got into this current climate change mess in the first place.

Congress, Do Your Job!

Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife, and oceans at Earthjustice, told The Washington Post in an interview that the administration’s changes could be subject to legal challenge because they would remove so many projects from federal review. “The whole idea of the law is to give better information in advance to decision-makers and the public. It appears that these changes are an effort to undermine both of those purposes of the statute. It would basically make the federal government become an ostrich, sticking its head in the ground rather than thinking about the environmental impact of its actions.”

Of course, Congress could stop ceding its authority to the executive branch they way it has since Ronnie Rayguns sat in the Ovoid Office. Whether it’s military affairs, foreign policy, or national policy, Congress has refused to do much of anything but give itself pay raises and reward powerful friends who pay enormous bribes to get what they want. It lets lobbyists write the legislation it is supposed to create and basically absolves itself of all obligations other than to continue in existence.

The radical right has captured the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The separation of powers doctrine the Founding Fathers hoped would prevent America from falling into the clutches of tyranny has collapsed under the weight of a century-long assault by monied interests who want the government to work for them, not for the general population. What is happening should be as plain as the face on your nose, yet millions of people stand up and cheer as their rights are circumscribed or deleted altogether.

The solons who wrote the Constitution would not be amazed at the way the nation has destroyed itself. In fact, they rather expected it, knowing full well the tendency of humans to arrogate power and control unto themselves whenever possible. Asked what sort of government the authors of liberty had given the country, Benjamin Franklin growled, “A republic….if you can keep it.” Old Ben would not be shocked to learn that we couldn’t keep our republic alive and that it has now been devoured by a huge right wing conspiracy bent on suppressing responsible government at every turn.

No Due Process For The Earth

Hilton Kelley is an environmental activist in Port Arthur, Texas, which is one of America’s most polluted cities thanks to a large concentration of oil refineries and petrochemical plants. He tells The Washington Post, “The Trump administration is doing a serious injustice to people living in industrial communities.” He calls the proposed changes to NEPA “a matter of life and death.”

One result of the changes will be to strip local residents of the power to have a say in what generating facilities, pipelines, refineries, and chemical plants are constructed in their communities. The changes will tip the balance of power further in favor of corporations and diminish the power of people. If that isn’t turning the Constitution on its head, it’s hard to imagine what would. “They don’t want due process,” he said of the alleged administration. “We understand what we are dealing with here.” It’s nothing less than the right to survive. Rest assured that Trump and his henchmen could care less about Hilton Kelley and his neighbors.

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(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.) 

About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.