Fossil Fuel Interests Applaud Trump Administration’s Weakening of Major Environmental Law

By Dana Drugmand, a freelance writer and attorney who writes about climate issues. Originally published at DeSmog Blog

Industry groups including oil and gas trade associations were quick to pile on the praise following President Trump’s announcement Thursday, January 9 of major overhauls to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The 50-year-old bedrock environmental statute requires federal agencies to review the environmental impacts of major actions or projects, and has been a key tool for advocacy groups to challenge harmful infrastructure, from fossil fuel pipelines to chemical plants.

And in the Trump administration’s hasty efforts to assert “energy dominance,” judges have halted fossil fuel projects on grounds that the government did not adequately consider how those projects contribute to climate change.

For the fossil fuel industry, these court rulings, and the environmental law underpinning them, are an annoying setback. The industry has long been irked by NEPA, especially when it is used to delay petroleum-related projects because of climate concerns. In 2010, for example, the American Petroleum Institute commented in a blog post on the Bureau of Land Management delaying an oil and gas lease sale following a NEPAlawsuit that required the agency to study the leases’ climate impacts. “API hopes the review can be done quickly and allow the sale to be held later this year,” API wrote. “Furthermore, API believes that neither NEPA, nor other administrative tools, should be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.”

On Thursday, the Trump administration announced major revisions to the NEPAstatute that shrink the scope and timeline of environmental review. Under new regulations proposed by the Center for Environmental Quality, the White House agency that implements NEPA, “cumulative effects” — such as how fossil fuel expansion contributes to climate change — would not need to be considered.

Several leading Democratic presidential contenders have said they would include a ban on fracking as part of their climate plan.

Elizabeth Warren has pledged to immediately end oil and gas leasing offshore and on public lands, and also to “ban fracking — everywhere.” Bernie Sanders includes a ban on fracking in his comprehensive climate plan, and he repeatedly references via Twitter his commitment to ban fracking. Kamala Harris said during a televised “Climate Town Hall” in September that she would seek to ban fracking as well.

Tying Domestic Oil and Gas to Patriotism

The fact that presidential candidates are even talking about a fracking ban undoubtedly has the petroleum industry concerned, as the new API video implies. The video features former presidents from both political parties, from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, declaring the importance of ending reliance on foreign oil and speaking to progress in advancing domestic petroleum production.

The video, which also features patriotic images like the Statute of Liberty and American flags, concludes with the message: “Support America’s Energy Security. Oppose a Fracking Ban.”

The term “effects” is clarified to exclude “effects that the agency has no authority to prevent or would happen even without the agency action.” This essentially eliminates climate change from being a concern that agencies must consider under NEPA. The proposed regulations also facilitate “efficiency” by encouraging categorical exclusions (meaning more projects will not even have to undergo review) and by setting time limits of two years maximum to complete reviews, regardless of the project’s complexity.

Fossil Fuel Promoters Cheer NEPA Changes

The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) lauded the decision, while also disparaging environmentalists’ efforts to invoke the law. “IPAA is pleased that the Administration continues to tackle substantial projects, such as their effort to return the NEPA process to the original intent and scope of the law,” said Dan Naatz, senior vice president of Government Relations and Political Affairs at IPAA. “Although IPAA and our members recognize the important role NEPA plays in public land policy, for many years we have seen the law being abused by environmentalists with extreme agendas to delay and halt various multiple-use activities on federal lands, including oil and gas production.”

American Energy Alliance (AEA) president Thomas Pyle, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, also alleged that environmentalists have abused NEPA. “Radical environmental groups have twisted the intent behind NEPA and leveraged the legal system to their advantage in a coordinated effort to slow and stop progress and I welcome the news that President Trump plans stop them in his commitment to make America great again,” Pyle said. AEA is the advocacy arm of the nonprofit Institute for Energy Research, whose funding has included API, Koch family foundations, and ExxonMobil.

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), whose members include companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron and which in 2017 launched an initiative attacking climate liability lawsuits, also applauded the NEPA overhaul announcement. NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons was at the White House on Thursday supporting the president.

A statement from Timmons following this announcement mentions a NAM blueprint for infrastructure improvements that specifically called for overhauling NEPA. “The NAM’s Building to Win infrastructure plan called for exactly this type of modernization — because our efforts should be used for building the infrastructure Americans desperately need, not wasted on mountains of paperwork and endless delays,” Timmons said. This remark reveals that industry groups have been gunning for NEPA reforms for a while. NAM</’s “Building to Win” strategy was first released in 2016.

Law Changes on the Industry Wishlist

In 2018, groups like IPAA and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Association (AFPM) submitted comments as part of CEQ’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding updating NEPA regulations. These groups complained that the current NEPA process is excessively burdensome and costly — concerns that President Trump and CEQ head Mary Neumayr repeatedon Thursday — and they made recommendations like limiting the scope of NEPA analyses that CEQ readily adopted.

But industry trade associations did not limit their NEPA demands to formal comment periods. In November of last year, a coalition of 33 organizations wrote a letter to CEQ urging the agency to “expeditiously proceed with revisions to modernize NEPA implementing regulations.”

The Dakota Access pipeline being installed between farms, as seen from 50th Avenue in New Salem, North Dakota, in 2016. Credit: Tony Webster CC BY SA 2.0


A few weeks later, the National Petroleum Council, an advisory organization made up of oil and gas executives and other petroleum stakeholders, issued a report on “America’s Evolving Oil and Natural Gas Transportation Infrastructure.” The report notes that “NEPA has become a leading basis for challenging agency decisions affecting energy infrastructure,” and calls forsignificant clarification and overhaul of NEPA.

President Trump has now delivered on the industry groups’ demand to weaken a key environmental law. “Today, we’re taking another historic step in our campaign to slash job-killing regulations and improve the quality of life for all of our citizens,” the president said at the announcement.

Democrats and Green Groups Bash Rule Changes

Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers slammed the proposal, saying it would hurt citizens and that real beneficiaries are the polluting industries seeking to expedite harmful projects.

“Today’s action is nothing more than an attempt to write Donald Trump’s climate denial into official government policy,” saidSierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. “Communities across the country are already feeling the effects of climate change, but rather than protect them, Trump is pulling out all the stops to silence their voices and further prop up his corporate polluter friends.”

“The Trump administration would allow powerful industries, like oil and gas extractors, to run roughshod over community interests,” added Dr. Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) weighed in on the announcement with a statement under the headline, “Trump Caves to Fossil Fuels in Roll-Back of Bedrock Environmental Protection Law.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) also called out the fossil fuel industry’s influence. “We didn’t need more proof that the fossil fuel industry has hardwired the Trump administration to deliver on its interests, but we got it anyway,” Whitehouse said.

While industry is cheering the announcement, the actual changes to NEPA may be a ways off. The public has until March 10 to comment on CEQ’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and CEQ still has to hold public hearings on the proposed changes. Lawsuits challenging the regulations are also likely.

“We will use every tool in our toolbox to stop this dangerous move and safeguard our children’s future,” Natural Resources Defense Council president, and former EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy said.

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  1. jackiebass

    Businesses love Trump. Making regulations is one of the biggest powers the executive branch has. Most people are clueless about what the trump administration is doing this area. After Trump it will take decades to clean up the mess. Some messes will never be cleaned up. He is attacking many things. The environment, national parks, and health care are only the tip of the ice-burg.

    1. Dirk77

      You would think regulations would be derived from laws that would be passed by Congress. Have I just not been paying attention all my life? Or is the law vague enough so that the interpretation of it is left to the executive branch? So if Congress were to tighten the law, the executive would need to go along?

      1. Arthur Dent

        The big companies want regulation on their terms. Regulations are useful in keeping upstarts out. So the perfect regulation is something with a bunch of paperwork and systems requirements that don’t prevent them from doing whatever they want to do. The paperwork and systems are an overhead cost that will sink many new companies without strong backing. Right now there is a legal battle in Louisiana as people have figured out that the oil & gas have been given eminent domain where they can expropriate land without having to go to court:

        Uber simply rode rough-shod over this and started up what is effectively a taxi service and dropped it in to cities with lots of taxi laws. However, those companies (e.g. NYC) had simply ridden those rules without providing good service and Uber was able to prevail simply because so many people wanted a better product. So eventually these things can be fixed if the people want to fix them. But in general, the Benjamins rule everything until there is a critical mass of public opinion. That is where Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and NEPA came from in the first place.

      2. marym

        My guess is that lobbyists, “revolving door” Congressional staff, and donor-serving Congress critters design legislation this way purposely so that powerful interest groups can continue to exert influence. We probably weren’t supposed to have figured it out, but now they’re not even being subtle about it.

        It’s definitely something we need to watch, going forward (if we ever get a chance to go forward…)

    2. jrs

      I suspect that those who can still tolerate Trump just aren’t keeping up with what is actually going on at this point (ok there are also people who don’t care about the environment or national parks or working people – yea that’s much of the Republican party, but I mean anyone who does care and can still tolerate Trump).

      Not that it gets sufficient reporting, stuff gets lost in the latest Trump outrage, which is kind of why he can screw us as badly as he is and get away with it. That and a highly manipulated “good economy”.

  2. Steve

    I turned 60 last summer and this is the first change in years that I have started in just total despair. With all the discussions about solutions to our environmental problems the damage we are doing is still growing every second of everyday. Reversing the damage at this point is an illusion since we lack the capacity to even slow it down. The 1% have a plan (they have had one for a long time) and we are not part of it. Over the past few weeks I got to talk with a few people around 20 years old. I asked them what they think about how everything is going. The most given answers was “we are so screwed”. These people are all very intelligent and either in college or heading to very good colleges. I feel very badly for all of them.

    1. Susan the other

      I think they actually had more control in the 19th century. Now it would be equally useless (as lack of regulation currently is) to break up the oil companies – they are no longer the same animal. What we need is specific regulation. But before that we need legislation in every country making oil, gas, nuclear, wind, sun, geothermal, hydro – all sources of energy – a question of rationing. How to ration these strategic resources so that all of civilization has adequate access to their use, but their abuse is prevented. Otherwise what we get is what we’ve got which is cowboy capitalism. When it comes to energy everybody is wildcatting and asking for special privileges. And getting them. Energy needs to be rationed to maintain proper use and control pollution, which is externalized costs which nobody can afford any longer. It all needs to be legislated, regulated and enforced. A utility from start to finish. I’m sure there are plenty of opportunists who want to see a wild west of energy exploitation. It’s what we do best. And it has become a disgrace. All we know how to do is steal and trash.

  3. rosemerry

    When we see who is supporting all these destructive changes and look back to the Clean Air Act and other relics of the Nixon Administration, we seem to have learned nothing and never will. Ralph Nader must look back in disbelief that so much was achieved and is now gone, all environmental problems are worse and the “Republican Party” is as far from conservative as any group.
    The “energy independence” the USA now boasts about seems not to stop its attacks on other countries relating to coal, oil, gas. It interferes with the EU-Russia decisions on gas pipelines, Ukraine/Russia domestic decisions on transit of gas, Venezuela energy arrangements with other countries, Saudi-Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq……… If the USA is independent, let others make their own decisions!!

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