President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that he said would streamline the approval process for building infrastructure such as roads, bridges and offices by eliminating a planning step related to climate change and flood dangers.
The White House confirmed that the order issued Tuesday would revoke an earlier executive order by former President Barack Obama that required recipients of federal funds to strongly consider risk-management standards when building in flood zones, including measures such as elevating structures from the reach of rising water. Obama’s Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, established in 2015, sought to mitigate the risk of flood damage charged to taxpayers when property owners file costly claims.
Climate scientists warn that sea levels will rise substantially in the coming decades, and they say that long-term infrastructure projects will probably face more frequent and serious flood risks.
A White House official said the order will not stop “state and local agencies from using a more stringent standard if they choose.”
The fight over flood planning comes as Congress is set in September to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program that pays insurance claims. The beleaguered program is nearly $25 billion in debt, an obligation its administrator, Roy Wright, said he can’t repay.
Conservationists complained that the new order will weaken environmental standards that guard against flood risk. And they’ve found common cause with conservative think tanks worried about saddling the federal government with the burden of paying for flood damage in the future.
“Taxpayers have been made to shell out hundreds of billions of dollars in disaster-related spending over the past decade, including more than $136 billion for just the two years from 2011 to 2013,” R.J. Lehmann, a senior fellow at the conservative R Street Institute, said in a statement opposing Trump’s anticipated order. “By contrast, evidence shows that every $1 spent on disaster mitigation can save $4 in post-disaster recovery and rebuilding costs.”
“This is just another example of this administration trying to undo everything the Obama administration did, whether it makes any sense or not,” said William Robert Irvin, president of American Rivers, an advocacy and conservation group. “Directing federal agencies to ignore the impact of flooding in spending federal dollars is just a complete waste of taxpayer money and continues this administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to the perils of climate change, which is resulting in increased flooding.”
Trump’s executive order also promised “one Federal decision” for major infrastructure projects and setting a two-year goal for completion of permitting processes. He said every project would be assigned to a lead agency that would be held “accountable” for the project.
But many independent groups said they feared that Trump would try to limit possibilities for public comment.
“This order will put people throughout the country at risk by allowing developers to ignore potential hazards while muzzling the public’s ability to weigh in on potentially harmful projects near their homes,” Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.
The president’s action comes as no surprise. In January he signed an executive order to fulfill his goal of “expediting environmental reviews and approvals” to fast-track an effort to “fix our country, our roadways and bridges.” Too often, government and commercial projects are tangled in federal requirements, that order said. It commanded federal agencies to undertake environmental analyses with “maximum efficiency and effectiveness,” with an eye toward green-lighting projects.
A number of organizations, such as the National Association of Home Builders, opposed Obama’s order and applauded Trump’s. The NAHB argued that the order’s requirement to raise single-family homes by two feet within a 100-year flood when they are built or substantially improved “could make many projects infeasible, due to increased construction costs and the inability to offset these costs through higher rents.”
But the earlier order had significantly more supporters — engineers, planners and municipal managers, among others, said Laura Lightbody, flood preparedness project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts. Trump’s order “certainly from a national standpoint is a short-sighted step. This is a national policy that safeguards infrastructure … so why wouldn’t we make these investments with an eye toward the future?”
Lightbody said Nashville, New Orleans and Charlotte are just three examples of cities that are building infrastructure with plans to protect it. There was considerable misunderstanding by opponents of the existing rule about what it does, she said. “There was an understanding that it would prohibit building in a flood plain. Not true,” she said. “It does require that when you’re rebuilding after a disaster you consider future flood risk.”