By Tatiana Walk-Morris
When asked how many environmental regulatory changes have been made or proposed by the Trump administration, Laura Bloomer, a legal fellow at Harvard's Environmental & Energy Law Program, can't give the exact figure off the top of her head. But the program has been tracking relevant executive orders, rule changes, and other actions since President Donald J. Trump took office in 2017, and she knows how long that list has gotten: about 80 pages.
According to a report from the New York Times, which was based on Harvard's research and other sources, 68 changes had been completed and 32 were in progress as of mid-July. That equals a grand total of 100 environmental policies targeted. According to the report, the rollbacks could "significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to thousands of extra deaths from poor air quality each year."
Most recently, Trump targeted the National Environmental Policy Act, which in 1970 created a regulatory framework to enforce environmental impact assessments and seek community feedback before construction on federal projects. Citing the pandemic's impact on the economy, President Trump issued an executive order in June that makes it easier to bypass environmental reviews and accelerate permitting for infrastructure projects like highways and pipelines, reducing the process in some cases from about four and a half years to two. The change was finalized in July and also scales back requirements for other laws like the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts.
"Today's action is part of my administration's fierce commitment to slashing the web of needless bureaucracy that is holding back our citizens. I've been wanting to do this from day one," Trump said on July 15. "It's one of the biggest things we can be doing for our country."
While experts agree regulatory efficiency is necessary, many disagree with the White House's methods. "Reform can be achieved while improving the ability to make thoughtful, informed decisions about the future that don't saddle taxpayers with repeated disasters, increased risk, escalating climate impacts, and deepened racial inequities," APA President Kurt Christiansen, FAICP, and Chad Berginnis, CFM, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said in a joint statement on behalf of both organizations.
On balance, the rollbacks have left planners leaning heavily on patchwork state and local guidance, endangering resiliency goals and projects that require federal funding or permits — and putting communities that have long borne the brunt of harmful land-use decisions further at risk.
A recipe for injustice
The NEPA change could affect transit agencies and departments of transportation by constraining planners' ability to assess environmental outcomes, says Susan Wood, FAICP, planning project manager with the Regional Transportation District in Denver. It could also leave less room for public engagement, she says.
The act usually requires community feedback as part of the assessment, but Trump's executive order complicates that step and, in some cases, even allows for ways around it, meaning residents could lose the opportunity to provide input or challenge projects that impact their health.
"It requires comments to be really specific, to site page numbers and be really technical in ways that can be really challenging for communities. They may need to hire people to write their letters, if they can afford to do that," Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has helped numerous majority-minority towns challenge polluting projects, told The Hill in July.
Critics say these impacts could be particularly disastrous in communities of color, in low-income areas, and on tribal lands, where there is a long, living history of disproportionately siting harmful land uses.
"Black, brown, and under-resourced communities have suffered the devastating impacts of environmental racism for generations; the fact that Black Americans are dying at a much higher rate from coronavirus exposes the deadly consequences of this truth," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resource Committee, said in a written statement where he also referred to NEPA as a public health law.
According to Grijalva, "gutting NEPA takes away one of the few tools communities of color have to protect themselves and make their voices heard on federal decisions impacting them."
Missing the long view
Understanding the pattern behind proposed or implemented rule changes has been challenging because they don't follow the previous predictable pendulum swings of Republican and Democratic administrations, says Caitlin McCoy, staff attorney at the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard University. The current administration seems to evaluate rules on a case-by-case basis, often according to which industries have influence with the executive branch in a given period, she says.
"In some places, the administration wants to open up the ability of states to have more flexibility and lower standards," McCoy says. "But in other areas, you see them pretty aggressively constraining states in favor of locking in lower standards across the board."
Overall, Trump's regulatory changes have centered on climate change, particularly mitigation efforts like the Clean Air Act and other others that oversee greenhouse gas emissions, says Hana Vizcarra, staff attorney at Harvard University's Environmental & Energy Law Program. That includes restricting climate change data collection, like limiting most studies from the Department of Interior to one year in duration and 150 pages in length — a move at odds with sound, science-based decision making, says Jason Jordan, APA's policy director.
"We're not taking the position that there isn't an opportunity to reform some of these things for the better," he says. "But the approach too often has been to ignore real and present threats and wipe away regulations without really looking at the long-term consequences of those actions."
The rollbacks could affect substantial projects that require federal funding or permits, says Ralph Willmer, FAICP, technical assistance program manager and principal planner at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Massachusetts. But as of right now, Willmer says he's seen minimal impact on such projects because few are currently underway. In Massachusetts, the state has provided planning funding for its Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, mitigating some federal regulatory shifts, he says.
Cutting Red Tape Gets the Green Light
The Trump administration's deregulation efforts target a wide range of environmental policies.
|Air Pollution and Emissions
|Drilling and Extraction
|Infrastructure and Planning
|Toxic Substances and Safety
Source: The New York Times
Change still to come
This year's presidential election could bring more changes. If former Vice President and presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins, planners should prepare for a wave of regulations with even higher standards than those implemented under the Obama administration, Harvard's McCoy says.
In June, Biden unveiled a climate plan that includes $1.7 trillion in federal clean energy spending, "historic investment" in climate research, and many policies found in the Green New Deal, introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in February and voted down by the Senate in March.
Elsewhere in Congress, some efforts to address climate resiliency have been made, like the climate provision in this year's upcoming Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act. It marks the first time a climate-specific program was added to the transportation bill, and on a bipartisan basis. And while Trump was scaling back NEPA, House passed the Moving Forward Act in July, a massive infrastructure bill that requires state and metropolitan planning organizations to include greenhouse gas reductions in their long-range transportation plans.
The House Select Committee on Climate Crisis also recently released its long-awaited Solving the Climate Crisis, a 500-plus-page climate action plan with legislative recommendations on topics ranging from agriculture to zero-emission technology. It will likely fail to gain traction in the divided Senate, APA's Jordan says, but it could serve as a roadmap for a future Congress and presidential administration — and position planning as a key ally in setting and implementing effective climate policy.
Until then, Jordan urges planners to embrace leadership and innovation on climate action at the local level. While the current administration's changes run contrary to future climate change and environmental goals, local successes will ultimately inform national policy, he says.
Tatiana Walk-Morris is a Detroit-native, Chicago-based independent journalist.