Under cover of tear gas, the Trump administration last week intensified its ongoing demolition of the country’s bedrock environmental protections — a series of calculated moves made while the nation remained gripped by the twin viruses of COVID-19 and institutional racism.
It started on Thursday, June 4, when President Trump used the pandemic as an “emergency” excuse to issue an executive order allowing federal agencies to set aside key protections in the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in order to speed up the construction of oil and gas pipelines, highways and other projects.
Trump’s long-threatened NEPA rollback, which will limit citizens’ ability to voice objections to destructive projects, poses a direct threat to minority communities already facing greater levels of illness and death under the COVID-19 pandemic following decades of environmental racism.
“Here we are in the midst of an epidemic that affects your respiratory system and communities that are concerned about respiratory health are losing a voice to stop projects that exacerbate serious health issues,” David Hayes, executive director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at New York University’s School of Law, told The Hill.
The executive order came three days after Trump used police and teargas to clear away peaceful crowds protesting racially biased police violence to make room for his now-notorious photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
And it came the same day the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that world atmospheric carbon dioxide levels had reached a new record high of 417.1 parts per million, putting the planet further on the path toward runaway climate change. “Progress in emissions reductions is not visible in the CO2 record,” NOAA senior scientist Pieter Tans said in the announcement. “We continue to commit our planet — for centuries or longer — to more global heating, sea level rise and extreme weather events every year.”
The text of the press release continued: “If humans were to suddenly stop emitting CO2, it would take thousands of years for our CO2 emissions so far to be absorbed into the deep ocean and atmospheric CO2 to return to pre-industrial levels.”
Atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Observatory reached a seasonal peak of 417.1 parts per million (ppm) in May 2020, 2.4 ppm higher than the 2019 peak of 414.7 ppm. https://t.co/BRF9VmLGIO #ClimateChange pic.twitter.com/wVhlQUGvdl— NOAA Research (@NOAAResearch) June 6, 2020
Which made it all the more perplexing when the EPA, following Trump’s order for additional “emergency” deregulation, announced it would ease the rules that require factories and power plants to report — or even monitor — their pollution emissions, although it did state that these industries should continue to obey existing pollution limits.
In another giveaway to industry, the new policy has been made retroactive to March 13, 2020.
As if those two changes weren’t enough, the slash and burn of environmental protections continued Friday, June 5, when Trump opened Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing. The 4,913-square-mile reserve, located 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, was established by President Obama in 2016 under the Antiquities Act and is home to “fragile and largely pristine deep marine ecosystems and rich biodiversity,” according to NOAA.
The move came exactly one week after Trump declared June to be “National Ocean Month” in a bizarre proclamation that focused more on offshore oil and gas development and seafood production than conservation.
The changes were, of course, immediate criticized.
“This rollback essentially sells off the future of the ocean and the future of the ecosystem for almost no present economic benefit,” Miriam Goldstein, ocean policy director at the Center for American Progress, told The Guardian. She added that it’s “puzzling that the president is doing it now, in the middle of the pandemic and with police riots going on around the country.”
Mystic Aquarium was instrumental in providing the scientific rationale for the designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, an area critical to combating the climate crisis that we are facing. To roll back protections is a mistake. pic.twitter.com/E9pdH1m6jd— Mystic Aquarium (@mysticaquarium) June 5, 2020
Much like Trump’s similar moves to shrink or eliminate other national monuments established by Obama under the Antiquities Act, the change to Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is probably illegal. As we’ve written before, presidents have the legal authority to establish monuments but not to rescind or downsize them. Lawsuits over Trump’s previous monument reductions continue to work their way through the courts, and new suits over this rollback are already expected to follow.
Still more rollbacks are on the way.
Also on Friday June 5, the Trump administration moved forward with plans to reduce the protections offered under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, another giveaway to the oil and gas industries — a particularly tone-deaf move during the middle of Black Birders Week, a nationwide event celebrating diversity in nature that coincided with the protests over racial police violence.
The changes to the 1918 international treaty law, which has helped hundreds of species over the past century, would decriminalize “incidental” (non-intentional) bird deaths caused by industrial projects such as oil pits, mines, telecommunications towers, wind turbines and other threats.
The changes aren’t final and are subject to a public-comments period, although citizens have already submitted approximately 200,000 public comments in favor of keeping the law as-is. But as National Audubon Society CEO David Yarnold pointed out, comment periods under the Trump administration “have become a cruel joke. The administration continues to ignore scientists, experts and … bird-lovers in favor of a few bad corporate actors who can’t be bothered with common sense environmental protections.”
Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) also criticized the changes, saying they would “lead to the deaths of thousands and thousands of birds protected under the MBTA. The administration’s radical action needlessly ties the hands of the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service], while at the same time undermining our international treaty obligations.”
What does all of this really mean in the long run? Legal experts have already pointed out that Trump’s executive order doesn’t have many teeth. “The Order is legally shaky and unlikely to accomplish much,” Dan Farber of UC Berkeley School of Law wrote this week.
Even corporate interests expressed some doubt, especially since the executive order will undoubtedly face court challenges. One engineer tweeted, as quoted by the Washington Post, that “there is *NO WAY* I would turn a shovelful of dirt based on this Order.”
But industry groups actively celebrated the changes and expressed hope they would extend beyond the “emergency” period.
“We value the importance of these reforms now and underscore the need for finalizing rules across regulatory agencies that will implement permanent reforms,” American Exploration and Production Council chief executive Anne Bradbury told the Post.
It’s the last two words of Bradbury’s quote — “permanent reforms” — that say the most. We can expect industry to continue to ask for — and the Trump administration to grant — expanded, permanent deregulatory favors beyond this “emergency” period, changes that will continue to worsen our environment for people, wildlife and entire ecosystems.
And as with so much the Trump administration has done over the past three and a half years, these slash-and-burn changes will come as quietly as they can manage, with regressive actions continuing to take place under cover of darkness or tear gas.
Of course none of them will address the many other real crises this nation faces — and as we’ve seen this past week, all of them will likely only serve to make things worse.