Trump Signs Order Waiving Environmental Protections

President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House last Friday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CN) — Citing the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday that waives key environmental requirements for some mine, pipeline and highway construction projects.

Thursday’s order instructs federal agencies to circumvent long-standing environmental restrictions and to fast-track infrastructure project permits.

“Since I declared this national emergency, the American people have united behind a policy of mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, to reduce the spread of Covid-19. The unavoidable result of the Covid-19 outbreak and these necessary mitigation measures has been a dramatic downturn in our economy,” Trump said in his order.

The order impacts strict construction permit regulations put in place by the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by calling on the departments of Interior, Agriculture and Defense to use their authority to expedite the permit process on federal lands.

It also advises agencies to speed up civil works projects that are run by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The order is under criticism for allowing developers to bypass environmental regulations that have been in place for years.

“The President’s Executive Order waiving critical environmental protections is a direct threat to the environment and to countless vulnerable communities who are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

“Without these important safeguards, American taxpayers could spend billions of dollars on projects that destroy endangered ecosystems, are unable to withstand the effects of climate change and threaten the safety of American families.”

Thursday’s move comes in tandem with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s final rule announcement on June 1, which narrows the scope of environmental review required under the Clean Water Act for energy infrastructure projects.

In her statement, Pelosi slammed Trump for “using the coronavirus pandemic to justify fast-tracking potentially wasteful, dangerous or destructive infrastructure programs.”

Samir Abdelnour, a partner with the Hanson Bridgett law firm’s environmental, land use and natural resources practice, predicts any litigation that could arise from this order might follow a familiar judicial pattern.

“What we have seen with many of Trump’s other executive orders that seek to curtail otherwise entrenched regulations is that they are immediately challenged,” Abdelnour said.

While Congress passes environmental statutes, it is up to federal agencies to interpret them and those interpretations can be legally challenged.

Most likely, Abdelnour said, this order will be met with challenges seeking an injunction.

“Earlier in the presidency, district courts have shown a willingness to grant injunctions,” Abdelnour said. He added that the Trump administration has become more savvy when it comes to writing these things up.

Where Abdelnour has seen this type of injunction request struggle the most is upon appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court has displayed a “reluctance to overturn the president’s orders,” he said.

Additionally, Abdelnour said the Supreme Court has been “hostile” toward nationwide injunctions, stipulating that a project-specific challenge might stand a chance in front of the highest court due to the court’s recent environmental decisions.

Whatever adverse action may arise from Trump’s order, Abdelnour said, it will most likely take time.

“We will probably see more targeted and direct challenges to specific projects,” he said.

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