President Trump recently signed an order that waived several key environmental regulations on large projects in an effort to combat the massive economic downturn during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The president adduced increasing unemployment and unnecessarily lengthy regulatory processes as important reasons for the implementation of this policy – however, millions concerned about the environmental implications of this decision firmly opposed the president’s action with arguments grounded on quality of life, environmental impacts, and even race.
For context, there were numerous acts put in place over the years that aimed to prevent corporate encroachment of environmental guidelines. The most relevant of these acts is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which enacted rigorous procedural requirements on companies with regards to their plans and the impacts of their projects on the environment. Due to the tolls that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the global economy as well as the rise in domestic unemployment, however, President Trump decided to remove various rigorous requirements of NEPA, along with other acts such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. In essence, the elimination of key components of these environmental laws now allows companies to easily and legally circumvent vital prerequisites. Trump explained the necessity of this action in his official executive order: “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”. Fossil fuel companies and other developers have long been complaining about the many regulations of the environmental acts and were largely in favor of the president’s decision. Anne Bradbury, chief executive of the American Exploration and Production Council, stated “These reforms help to avoid federal rules that could otherwise hurt American workers, businesses and our economy”.
While there was corporate support for Trump’s order, the opposition towards the policy was much more overwhelming. Citizens and activists alike were angered at the seemingly unjust act that allowed for increased environmental damage – Gina McCarthy, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained, “Instead of trying to ease the pain of a nation in crisis, President Trump is focused on easing the pain of polluters”. Additionally, many were concerned about the health impacts of the president’s order. Historically, the numerous environmental acts have tended to reduce emissions of deadly pollutants, known as PM 2.5. However, the weakening of these acts will undoubtedly increase the presence of these hazardous pollutants; this is especially alarming today, as a study done by researchers at Harvard revealed that even “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM 2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate”. Regarding race, a 2018 study by the American Public Health Association revealed that “those in poverty had 1.35 times the exposure to PM 2.5 than others”, and African Americans specifically faced 1.54 times the amount of PM 2.5 than the rest of the population, on average. U.S. House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva responded to the order, explaining that “President Trump is dealing another blow to the Black community. 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”. Senator Chuck Schumer agreed, stating “By signing this executive order, Donald Trump is muzzling the voice of environmental justice communities, and continues to make clear his total disregard for those speaking out and fighting for racial justice and a sustainable environment”.