The Trump administration is ready to launch an assault on environmental impact statements that have been required for major infrastructure projects and blamed by critics for slowing or even stopping highways, bridges and port terminals.
Meanwhile, unionized employees at the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have drafted a ‘bill of rights’ intended to preserve scientific integrity, protect whistleblowers and permit environmental law enforcement without political interference.
The countervailing actions could serve to elevate environmental protection as a major 2020 election issue at the presidential and congressional levels.
The New York Times quoted an unnamed official as saying the goal of the new EPA rule is to “narrow the range of projects that require environmental review, [which] could make it likely that more projects will sail through the approval process without having to disclose plans to do things like discharge waste, cut trees or increase air pollution.”
One of the significant changes under the proposed rule would be no longer requiring consideration of cumulative consequences of new infrastructure. “In recent years courts have interpreted that requirement as a mandate to study the effects of allowing more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It also has meant understanding the impacts of rising sea levels and other results of climate change on a given project,” according to the Times report.
The Trump administration won’t seek amendments to the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law by President Nixon and known commonly as NEPA. Instead, the administration will propose 50 pages worth of new guidance on how to interpret and enforce NEPA provisions. “The Trump administration is focused on improving the environmental review and permitting process while ensuring a safe, healthy and productive environment for all Americans,” said Dan Schneider, a spokesman for the Council on Environmental Quality.
According to The Hill, “The bill of rights comes as the agency and the union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), sit down to hammer out a new contract following complaints from employees that the EPA unilaterally imposed the last one without their consent. The bill of rights asks for a fair contract in the negotiations, but it mainly pushes for worker protections related to the agency’s mission.”
The requested bill of rights specifically asks for whistleblower protections and “a right to protect human health and the environment, to protect environmental justice communities and to work without fear of reprisal.”
Leading congressional Democrats have expressed support for the EPA employee bill of rights as agency and union officials head to the bargaining table this week.
The list of issues in the presidential election is already long and contentious, including national health insurance, immigration, student college debt, corporate taxation, women’s reproductive health, impeachment and foreign policy. Environmental policy so far has been a fringe issue, but an assault on NEPA could give activists a reason to shift focus from individual projects to the national campaign.
Over the years, environmental policy has gained broader support. Amid growing fears of the effects of climate change, 56 percent of US adults now believe “protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress,” according to Pew Research. Protecting the environment had ranked in the middle of public priorities during the past decade.
Pew also notes Millennial Republicans are twice as likely as Boomer Republicans to believe in human-caused global warming and less likely to accept continued use of fossil fuels.
Pew data shows there is bipartisan concern over the effects of climate change, even if partisan reasons differ. Democrats want policies that provide net benefits for the environment, while Republicans seek policies that deliver net benefits to the economy.