President Trump recently signed a new Executive Order directing federal agencies to use emergency authorities in a misguided effort to rush through – and in some cases entirely bypass – the federal environmental permitting process for a wide range of projects.
The ability to fast-track projects in the face of an emergency – usually to avoid possible loss of life or destruction of property – is nothing new. The suite of foundational environmental laws adopted over the last five decades in the United States has long recognized the need to, at times, move quickly in the face of exigent circumstances.
At the outset, it is critical to recognize that environmental laws do not exist to create so-called “red tape” or delays. They were largely enacted on a bipartisan basis in the face of significant environmental destruction and concern in the 1960s and 70s. These laws have dramatically improved the quality of the nation’s air and water, reduced the public’s exposure to harmful chemicals and given the public a greater voice in government decisions.
These laws have helped us conserve our fish, wildlife and other natural resources – resources that are foundational to both our economy and to the quality of our lives. They are admittedly not perfect, and that is why The Nature Conservancy has engaged this and previous administrations in dialogue about constructive improvements that sustain or enhance environmental outcomes while supporting faster decision making.
This Administration has already proposed harmful changes to how some of our most important environmental laws are implemented – including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Clean Air Act, and National Environmental Policy Act – so their credibility in faithfully and fully implementing the existing laws has already been undermined.
Furthermore, we have seen many of their attempts to overturn work from previous administrations fail as they have been unable to justify their actions sufficiently to meet the low bar of not being “arbitrary and capricious.”
Environmental laws provide a critical check and balance, requiring federal agencies to look before they leap. The process of environmental review, including public input, often results in changes to proposed projects that make them better. The Executive Order would throw all of that out the window by adopting a misguided view that we must choose to either support economic growth and recovery or protect the environment.
Bypassing environmental reviews would needlessly harm the very lands and waters we all need to survive. Furthermore, the move to limit public involvement would have outsized impacts on disadvantaged communities at a time when the nation is already reeling from a global pandemic and deep, systemic injustice. People are justly demanding the right to be heard by their government, a right fundamental to our constitutional system.
Now is not the time to turn our back on decades of progress in environmental protection.