5 Environmental Rollbacks that Everyone Should Know About
Updated: Sep 21
In 2020 alone, the Trump administration has passed a flurry of environmental rollbacks that will have extensive consequences for the fate of our public lands.
Photo from Alexa Romano
In just under four years, the Trump administration has successfully rolled back 68 environmental protections with 32 more currently in progress. Pending re-election, there will be even more rollbacks and a new cost-benefit analysis established for environmental regulations that favors profits over protection. It is worth noting that for the first time in history, Scientific American has endorsed a presidential candidate, Trump’s opponent Joe Biden.
The past weeks of raging forest fires, smoke filled skies and hurricane flooding have emphasized and made immediate the tragic realities of climate change. The message is clear--the planet needs to heal and it's going to take direct action from us all to do so. The dismantling of environmental protections that safeguard public land from development threatens to tip our uncertain future in favor of climate change.
1.) Executive Order Expediting Infrastructure Projects During COVID-19
On June 4, 2020 Trump signed Executive Order 13927, which permits federal agencies to bypass environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act in order to expedite infrastructure projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. This executive order could push forward a wide variety of infrastructure projects without necessary environmental reviews that take into account how they will impact the health of the natural ecosystems and people living nearby.
Fajada Butte at Night Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Image Source: NPS
EO 13927 puts public land and nearby communities (who are often BIPOC communities as we will see below) at risk for devastating environmental hazards. Examples include efforts to fast track drilling proposals in Wyoming and in the Greater Chaco Region of New Mexico. The latter could add 3000 oil and gas wells to the Greater Chaco Region, the ancestral homeland of the Navajo Nation, that is already experiencing hazardous air quality likely from previous developments.
2.) Oil and Gas in the National Forest System Lands
On September 9th, the Trump administration proposed revisions to regulations on drilling for oil and gas within National Forests. The new rule proposes to take public input out of the process of leasing permits for businesses’ development of the forests. Additionally, the new rule drastically limits the legal and environmental review process involved in getting a lease and removes the necessity of a company’s compliance with NEPA and the Endangered Species Act. If you are an outdoor enthusiast, National Forests likely include some of your favorite places to recreate, such as the Sierra National Forest in California and the White Rivers National Forest in Colorado, as pictured here.
Yet, describing these ecosystems as solely places to recreate is an anthropocentric viewpoint that undermines the vital role they play as habitats for life beyond our own and carbon sinks that keep our planet in balance.
Seismic exploration before drilling to determine the location of oil reserves can cause leakage, erosion and disturbances to wildlife and habitats. While there are ways to make drilling more environmentally friendly, the act of drilling itself in National Forests will mean the destruction of habitats to build infrastructure and forests that act as carbon sinks. Drilling also carries the risk of leaking toxic waste as a byproduct and of course the potential of oil spills.
3.) Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
On August 17, 2020 the Trump administration finalized plans to open up the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), America’s largest wildlife refuge, for oil and gas drilling. The ANWR is a critical home to vulnerable wildlife including polar bears and Porcupine Caribou. This refuge is also the ancestral land of the Gwich’in Nation who still reside within its territory and consider it to be sacred.
Proposals to drill for oil within the ANWR were continually blocked in congress, until a tax bill passed in 2017 gave the Department of Interior the legal backing to move forward with a plan to lease 1.5 million acres of the region’s coastal plain to oil and gas companies. This decision was promptly met with lawsuits from environmental and indigenous organizations, including the NRDC, EarthJustice, the Gwich’in Steering Committee and the National Audubon Society stating that it violated several laws including the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act. With necessary reviews completed, the territory is ready to begin being auctioned off in leases despite the clear threat this poses to the health of the habitat, vulnerable wildlife populations and Gwich’in communities.
4.) Curtailing of Utah Federal Lands
Plans to open up National Forests and the ANWR for oil and gas drilling made recent headlines, but decreasing protections of federal lands in favor of development is nothing new. In 2017, the Trump administration shrank Bear Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by about 50%. This move stripped legal protections from around 2 million acres of federal public lands that are important ecosystems, as well as regions of vital archaeological value and cultural significance to the many Native Nations in the southwest, such as the Navajo Nation Hopi Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni.
Environmentalists and Native Nations said that these actions threaten some 100,000 archaeological sites in the monument's desert landscape as well as areas of critical natural significance. Multiple lawsuits have been filed in response to this decision by both environmental organizations and Native Nations, but the case remains pending and plans for development have not been called off.
5.) National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) Rollbacks
While EO 13927 provided a work around to environmental reviews during COVID-19, Executive Order 13807 issued on August 15th proposed a massive overhaul of NEPA and the entire scope of environmental reviews in the first place. Since its creation in 1970, NEPA is what requires federal agencies' transparency and environmental compliance before green lighting potential projects. Federal agencies are required to conduct an environmental analysis for major actions with likely environmental impacts. If the agency finds that a project is likely to cause significant impact, they must disclose this information in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). These new rollbacks limit how deeply we can look into the ripple effect that companies' projects may have on the environment. The new law does this by establishing a two year deadline for agencies to prepare EISs, eliminating the requirement for agencies to consider cumulative effects of projects and effects with “reasonably close causal relationships,” which restricts the analysis of greenhouse gas emissions in reviews.
A clear example of how NEPA protects natural ecosystems is evident in the groundbreaking decision on July 6th by the U.S. District Court that ruled that the DAPL pipeline must be shut down and emptied of oil until a full EIS that adequately assesses the impact of oil spills on the natural ecosystem was completed. Again, we see how environmental justice is interwoven with social justice since the protection of public lands not only means the protection of natural ecosystems, but also of Indigenous rights and communities who have acted as the planet’s frontline guardians for generations.
Vote for the Planet and Its People
These 5 out of 100 environmental rollbacks that will impact how, or better put if, public land will continue to be protected, are a small taste of what’s written between the lines on this year's ballot. The reality is that these rollbacks are so much more far reaching than just impacting treasured hiking spots in the backcountry. These are rollbacks intimately interwoven into the future of environmental and social justice that will directly impact the air we breathe, the water we drink, the survival of vulnerable wildlife populations and ultimately the outcome of climate change. The impact of these rollbacks has and will continue to impact communities across the nation, especially BIPOC who are disproportionately impacted by the harsh effects of climate change.
Your individual voice matters and so does your vote. A vote is simply a place for our voice to be heard within the collective (for those whose is not restricted through voter suppression). Each day, and especially November 3rd, we are given an opportunity to speak up and make choices that will determine the future we’ll experience weeks, months and years from now. The future is never set in stone, nor is it some far off distant event. It is simply the build up of every action we take over time. Yet, building a better one will take commitment, active listening and participation from each of us. So lace up those hiking boots and get ready, because we’ve got work to do.
Indigenous Groups to Support:
Environmental Groups to Support: