Under cover of COVID: Trump ramps up environmental attacks

President Trump holding signed proclamation with an American flag over his right shoulder

President Trump signs an executive order in May 2020 that encourages agencies to cut environmental safeguards and other regulations.

Joyce N. Boghosian, The White House, Flickr

Actions encourage drilling, threaten public health

“Don’t waste a crisis.” This somewhat cynical political axiom has been attributed to many different people, but arguably none have exemplified it quite like President Trump and his allies. Taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve ramped up efforts to dismantle environmental rules, giving away natural resources and undercut the tools of government that ordinarily allow the public to have some say in what happens to the land, water and air around them. 

Our roundup of major Trump attacks carried out under cover of the COVID-19 pandemic:

(updated May 26)

• Giving away public lands for drilling and mining

According to recent data, the Department of the Interior is issuing leases to oil and gas companies to drill on the nation’s public lands at rock-bottom rates, continuing the dramatic Trump “land grab.” The Bureau of Land Management is planning on holding a September 2020 lease sale for tracts totaling up to 150,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah, and the U.S. Forest Service is moving forward with plans to relax restrictions on mining and oil and gas leasing in national forests, jeopardizing drinking water for millions of people. 

• Pushing mining near the Grand Canyon

The Trump administration recently announced a plan that would encourage opening areas near the Grand Canyon for uranium mining, part of a plan that seizes on the COVID-19 pandemic to boost production of uranium more broadly. Such projects could contaminate drinking water that local tribes rely on.

• Free rein to scrap environmental safeguards

President Trump signed an executive order that grants federal agencies broad (though unspecified) power to slash regulations in the name of helping the economy. The move is widely seen as precursor to a suite of rollbacks to environmental safeguards.

• Making it easier to get away with polluting

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken several major actions to weaken or roll back rules that limit air pollution. These include:

• Letting polluters police themselves

The EPA indicated it has also stopped enforcing existing pollution standards amid the pandemic, instead asking that corporations regulate themselves. One former Obama administration official from the agency characterized the change as “essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules.”

• Suppressing public input

The administration is hampering public participation by plowing forward with environmental rulemaking and land management decisions while attention is directed elsewhere (and many people are unable to leave their homes). Dozens of Department of the Interior public comment periods have opened or closed since COVID-19 threw the nation into turmoil, even as public officials asked that these processes be paused or suspended. Some public meetings to consider rule changes have moved online, but Native American groups raise concerns that communities without reliable internet access will be excluded. The move to make public input accessible only with the benefit of high technology is likely to continue even after the pandemic, potentially shutting out rural and low-income communities indefinitely. 

• Gutting the “bill of rights for the environment”

The Trump White House’s Council on Environmental Quality is moving forward with plans to effectively destroy the National Environmental Policy Act, a law considered the “bill of rights for the environment.” The administration has denied requests to extend the period when people can give feedback on these plans. The proposed changes would make it easier to keep the public in the dark about government projects, which may be uniquely harmful to low-income families and communities of color.

• Cutting a deal for oil and gas companies

The Department of the Interior is making it easier for oil and gas companies to avoid making royalty payments when they drill on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in particular, has moved to effectively give away publicly held oil by helping companies pause their leases and avoid royalty payments. 

• …And undercutting renewable energy

Meanwhile, the BLM is charging retroactive rent to wind and solar energy producers, which have been decimated by the recent economic slump. Trump has a long record of antagonism toward renewable energy.

• Letting offshore drilling operations off the hook.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management gutted a proposed Obama administration rule that would have helped limit air pollution from companies drilling for oil and gas off the coast of the U.S. The Obama-era proposal was meant to update long-outdated regulations from 1980 that set benchmarks for air quality. 

Several of these attacks stand to deepen the already catastrophic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent study showed that patients with the disease are more likely to die of it if they live in areas with high pollution, and a staff report by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee highlighted that Trump rollbacks could further victimize the same communities of color and low-income households already hit hardest by environmental threats. 

The Trump administration’s attacks on the environment are bad enough on their own, but under cover of a deadly pandemic, they amount to a truly heinous new front in the war on wildlands and public health. 

We urgently need to stop the Trump administration from plowing ahead on anti-conservation decisions while it knows the nation is overwhelmed by the crisis.

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