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Trump signs order to waive environmental reviews for key projects

New executive order would affect how agencies apply laws such as the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act

Pipelines extend across the landscape outside Nuiqsut, Alaska, last year. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

President Trump signed an executive order Thursday instructing agencies to waive long-standing environmental laws to speed up federal approval for new mines, highways, pipelines and other projects given the current economic “emergency.”

Declaring an economic emergency lets the president invoke a section of federal law allowing “action with significant environmental impact” without observing normal requirements imposed by laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. These laws require agencies to solicit public input on proposed projects and analyze in detail how federal decisions could harm the environment.

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In the order, the president said setting aside these requirements would help the nation recover from the economic losses it has suffered since the outbreak of the coronavirus: “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.”

It is unclear how the directive will affect individual projects, especially since developers are often wary of legal challenges they could face from environmental or public interest groups. Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said in an email that “companies would be reluctant to rely on such an executive order,” knowing they would later have to prove that they were operating in an emergency.

Jason Redd, an engineer in the power sector based in Alabama, tweeted: “Project developer here...there is *NO WAY* I would turn a shovelful of dirt based on this Order.”

Trump’s desire to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act predates the eruption of the pandemic in the United States. In early January, the president proposed fundamental changes to 50-year-old regulations to narrow its scope. Those changes would mean that communities would have less control over some projects built in their neighborhoods. Environmental groups, tribal activists and others have used the law to delay or block infrastructure, mining, logging and drilling projects since it was signed by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970.

Those proposed changes are under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget and could be finalized within weeks. In addition, earlier this week the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule making it harder for states, tribes and the public to block pipelines and other projects that could pollute their waterways.

In Arizona, Laiken Jordahl, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, says border wall construction is threatening the environment. (Video: The Washington Post)

The order will also accelerate civil works projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and instruct the Interior, Agriculture and Defense departments to use their authorities to speed up projects on federal lands.

Just in the past month, Trump signed an executive order instructing agencies to ease regulatory requirements whenever possible to bolster the economy. The energy industry has argued these steps will provide critical aid to businesses during the current downturn.

“Removing bureaucratic barriers that stifle economic growth is paramount to getting American energy workers back in their jobs and spurring business investment that gets our economy moving again,” said American Exploration and Production Council chief executive Anne Bradbury, whose group represents the country’s shale industry and large producers of oil and gas. “We value the importance of these reforms now, and underscore the need for finalizing rules across regulatory agencies that will implement permanent reforms.”

American Gas Association President Karen Harbert said the directive “rebalances the permitting process to consider environmental impacts and the need for infrastructure, jobs and affordable energy.”

But Thomas Jensen, a partner at the firm Perkins Coie, said in an email that any decisions made in response to the executive order could be challenged in court. He noted that the National Environmental Policy Act was enacted 50 years ago partly to prevent arbitrary federal decisions such as building highways through parks and communities of color and that the current administration cannot simply set aside laws aimed at protecting vulnerable Americans or the environment.

“I will not be surprised to see many observers comparing this move — declaring an emergency to shield agency decisions from the public — to the order to clear Lafayette Square on Monday evening,” Jensen said, referring to actions in a Washington park this week. “It’s just one more face of authoritarian ideology, with a clear link to issues of race and equality and government accountability.”