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Trump Administration Uses COVID-19 “Emergency” to Undermine Law

In the midst of the turmoil and unrest arising last week in response to the unjust murders of the Black community by police, the Trump administration quietly used the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine federal environmental laws and fast-track oil and gas drilling. Seriously. We have sunk this low.

In an executive order issued on June 4, the administration cited the global pandemic and its effects on the economy as justification for “reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays.” Most environmental laws provide that in cases of “emergency,” the ordinary rules are relaxed. Of course, Congress was probably thinking about a different kind of emergency when passing these laws. (If a dam is ready to break, for example, the government has large latitude to act to prevent loss of human life.) What Trump has done is weaponized what little grey area might exist in the law—what is an “emergency”?—to sweep away environmental law.

Salinas River Oil Field. Photo by David Seibold, Flickr.

In the executive order, Trump first directs that all federal agencies examine potential projects the agencies can pursue to expedite the “delivery of infrastructure” on public lands, such as oil and gas development and to use all available “emergency…authorities to expedite” their construction. 

Second, the Trump administration takes direct aim at the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. To the National Environmental Policy Act, the Trump administration calls for a broad utilization of “alternative arrangements” that can be used in times of emergency to bypass public disclosure and public comment requirements of the law, allowing for projects to be built without adequate environmental review and oversight. To the Clean Water Act, the executive order similarly calls for projects to be shepherded through under emergency rules, trading degradation of waterways for expedited projects. Lastly to the Endangered Species Act, the executive order directs that federal agencies not consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service about the effects of projects on listed species. 

This moment calls for a rethinking of our economy and how we can recollect ourselves to be more just and verdant. We need a Green New Deal and economic resiliency rooted in community resiliency. EPIC joins the calls for stimulus spending to be directed at areas where we can invest in good, long-term jobs while reducing greenhouse emissions. Development of that fair and just economy is an emergency. This moment does not, however, excuse undermining of environmental law to perpetuate the existing flawed system.


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