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New Executive Order To Waive Environmental Protections For Federal Agencies


A new executive order from President Trump will let federal agencies bypass some major environmental laws. The goal is to fast-track big, new infrastructure projects and boost the economy, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. NPR's Jeff Brady joins us now.

Hello, Jeff.


MCCAMMON: What does this executive order do?

BRADY: Well, it directs federal agencies to expedite construction of transportation and energy infrastructure. We're talking about things like highways, oil and gas pipelines and coal export terminals. Usually, those are - when those are proposed, there are these long approval processes under the National Environmental Policy Act. It gives people a chance to see how the project might affect them and weigh in with opinions on what decision the government should make. And if a project somehow affects an endangered animal or plant, the Endangered Species Act might also be involved. With this order, the president says the economic crisis the country is experiencing is an emergency. And he thinks federal agencies should be allowed to bypass some of those requirements.

MCCAMMON: And is this something that other presidents have done?

BRADY: It is. And I've seen records showing every president back to Ronald Reagan using this emergency authority but only in limited circumstances, say, like, if there's a wildfire or a hurricane or something that needs to be - where something needs to be built very quickly. One example is back in 2014. This is during the Obama administration. The National Park Service got an emergency exception to build an evacuation route at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. They expected the existing route was going to be covered by lava within 45 days. So they said they had to - they still, though, had to involve the public in the process. There was - it was an emergency. But then after it was all over, they had to go through the full NEPA process. And the concern here is that President Trump has been a critic of these environmental laws all along. And many worry he's just using this emergency to weaken those laws without Congress changing them. Already there's a proposal to speed up the National Environmental Policy Act reviews. And there have been dozens of proposals during this administration to roll back environmental regulations. There was just another today actually to change cost-benefit analysis under the Clean Air Act.

MCCAMMON: And what have been the response of the, you know, environmental and - what's been the response of environmental and industry groups to this executive order?

BRADY: Yeah. You know, the criticism from environmental groups, it came in quick this afternoon. Gina McCarthy, she's a former EPA administrator. She now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council, and she said instead of trying to ease the pain of a nation in crisis, President Trump is focused on easing the pain of polluters. And Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, he chairs the Natural Resources Committee, and he said that the National Environmental Policy Act - it's one of the few tools that communities of color have to protect themselves and make sure their voices are heard on federal decisions. And he says the president is compromising that here. There have been a very different reaction from industries. Rick Nolan, the president and CEO of the National Mining Association, said this order will help jump start the economy and encourage companies to use American-made materials. He mentions things like copper for wiring and coal for making steel, zinc for galvanizing metals. He says that this might reverse a trend of relying on imported materials.

MCCAMMON: And, Jeff, how soon could some of these transportation or energy projects begin?

BRADY: Well, we have the executive order, and things are probably going to start happening. But there is probably going to be a legal challenge here because environmentalists think this is not lawful.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Jeff Brady.

Thanks, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.