Trump's environmental protection rollback continues
Publish date: 14 January 2020
Issue Number: 637
Diary: Legalbrief Environmental
In a case of two steps forward and one step back, the US last week pushed to weaken environmental protection standards for energy projects while introducing tougher emissions limits for trucks, writes Legalbrief. US President Donald Trump has proposed changes that could allow projects ranging from oil pipelines to mines to move forward with far less federal review of their impact on the environment. According to a report in The Guardian, the plan, released by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), would help the administration advance big energy and infrastructure projects, such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline or roads, bridges and federal buildings. ‘For the first time in over 40 years today we are issuing a new rule under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions,’ Trump said at the White House last week. The proposal to update how NEPA, the 50-year bedrock federal environmental law, is implemented as part of Trump’s broader actions to cut regulations and oversight. The proposed rule would make it easier for major fossil fuel projects to sail through the approval process and avoid legal challenges. ‘Today’s destructive actions by Trump, if not blocked by the courts or immediately reversed by the next President, will have reverberations for decades to come,’ said Rebecca Concepcion Apostol, US programme director at Oil Change International, an environmental group. The plan will go through a public comment period before being finalised.
In more positive news, the Trump administration took its first step towards tighter pollution control on heavy-duty trucks and truck engines after US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed an advance notice of proposed rule-making last week. A Jurist report notes that in 2016 more than 20 organisations petitioned the EPA to develop more strict emission standards after the EPA projected that heavy-duty vehicles would continue to be the largest contributors to the mobile source of oxides of nitrogen emissions (NOx) through to 2028. In December 2016, the EPA highlighted several potential components of future action, which included improving test procedures and test cycles, updating certification and in-use testing protocols, and creating incentives to encourage the transition to current- and next-generation cleaner technologies as soon as possible. The EPA announced plans in November to update standards for NOx from highway heavy-duty vehicles through the Cleaner Trucks Initiative (CTI). The EPA will be soliciting pre-proposal comments on the CTI.
Meanwhile, the human toll from coal-fired pollution in America has been laid bare by a study that has found more than 26 000 lives were saved in the US in just a decade due to the shift from coal to gas for electricity generation. A report in The Guardian notes that the shutdown of scores of coal power facilities across the US has reduced the toxic brew of pollutants suffered by nearby communities, cutting deaths from associated health problems such as heart disease and respiratory issues, the research found. An estimated 26 610 lives were saved in the US by the shift away from coal between 2005 and 2016, according to the University of California study published in Nature Sustainability. ‘When you turn coal units off you see deaths go down. It’s something we can see in a tangible way,’ said Jennifer Burney, a University of California academic who authored the study. ‘There is a cost to coal beyond the economics. We have to think carefully about where plants are sited, as well as how to reduce their pollutants.’ Previous research has shown that both coal and gas will need to be rapidly replaced by zero carbon alternatives such as solar and wind, or to at least deploy technology that captures emissions, if the world is to avoid more disastrous global heating. Thomas Burke, a former EPA official responsible for clean air, said Burney’s study ‘provides a new lens for viewing the broad impacts of coal on our health, agriculture and climate’.