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Week 28: Trump’s Wall Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Break Laws (Environmental or Otherwise)
Brian Palmer

The president won’t subject his offensive border project to environmental review, but his administration will subject the EPA museum to censorship.

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.


Wall of Shame

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Tuesday that it would waive environmental safeguards in order to expedite the building of Trump’s enormously controversial wall along the U.S.–Mexico border. The decision came in the wake of reports that the border wall’s construction would begin in a wildlife refuge and threaten endangered species that regularly cross between the two countries.

Jaguars, for example, have tentatively begun to reestablish themselves north of the border after their complete disappearance from the United States in the 1960s. The existing wall along portions of the border has already blocked the big cat’s movement. Extending the wall would virtually preclude the jaguar’s return, while also constricting the ranges of many other fragile southwestern species, such as ocelots, pronghorn, Mexican gray wolves, and even ferruginous pygmy owls.

The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require the federal government to review the impact on endangered species and natural resources of most prospective construction projects. In 1996, however, Congress passed a law allowing the attorney general to waive those two laws in the case of the border wall. President Clinton, to his great shame, signed the bill into law. Dissatisfied with the pace of wall construction, Congress passed another bill in 2005 that went even further, allowing the administration to waive any law that might impede the construction of the border fence. The bill grants the executive branch such sweeping powers that the Congressional Research Service openly pondered whether a president could legally use child labor to build the wall. (The CRS concluded he probably could not.)

Why Trump couldn’t submit his border wall to environmental review is unclear. Voters would learn how the wall would affect flooding and other aspects of the natural world, and there’s plenty of time to do the analysis. This wall isn’t exactly on a fast track. The United States began building a border fence 27 years ago, the money for what could be as much as a $40 billion project hasn’t been appropriated, and senior members of Congress remain skeptical about its worthiness. Pretending that environmental laws are the main impediment to construction is nothing but a distraction.

You’ll Never Guess Who’s Rewriting the Clean Power Plan

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has called the Clean Power Plan “an effort to kill jobs across the country.” He is apparently unaware of both the intent of the Clean Power Plan (reducing carbon pollution from power plants) and the 75 consecutive months of job growth under the Obama administration. If President Obama was hell-bent on killing American jobs, as Pruitt implies, he failed pretty spectacularly.

Viktor Gmyria/123RF

Anyway, President Trump signed an executive order in March directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan. While Trump didn’t describe what its replacement would look like, the president’s group of informal advisers gives us a pretty good idea. According to a report in E&E News, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) have held a series of meetings with administration officials about the fate of the CPP.

The positive spin: Industry leaders reportedly want the administration to “fix” rather than gut the Clean Power Plan. But positive spin is still spin. Trump and Pruitt know they have to replace the Clean Power Plan with something that would at least superficially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from utilities, because the Administrative Procedures Act forbids an administration from throwing out valid regulations without a good reason. So, of course, they’re looking for a toothless plan that vaguely resembles the CPP.

That the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are seriously interested in significantly cutting carbon emissions is highly doubtful. Chamber of Commerce leadership has consistently refused to acknowledge the human contribution to global climate change and is so vehemently opposed to sensible environmental regulations that many of its largest corporate members have quit the organization in protest. The National Association of Manufacturers has similarly tarred environmental rules as “anti-growth,” driving away major members like Duke Energy with its overheated rhetoric. NAM also intervened in a lawsuit in which children sued the federal government over its inaction on climate change. Then NAM attempted to withdraw from the case when it became clear the organization could be forced to hand over internal documents relating to its knowledge of and (possibly) its attempts to discredit the realities of climate change.

If these are the groups counseling Trump on climate change regulation, things are . . . exactly as bad as we thought.

Rewriting History

The Trump administration has worked hard to erase mentions of climate change from government communications such as websites, press releases, and tweets. But it missed a spot. A mini-museum about the history of the EPA, opened at the end of the Obama administration, extols the agency’s successes. The little exhibit celebrates, among other things, the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement.

That’s about to change. Trump officials have become aware of the museum, and they’re preparing to expunge its mentions of climate action. They might even take it one step farther—the administration is reportedly considering adding an homage to coal to the museum.

Tell Trump we won't stop fighting global climate change

“It should be no surprise that there may be changes,” Nancy Grantham, an EPA public affairs employee, told the Washington Post.

It may be unsurprising, given the president’s many affronts to both the environment and the truth, but it’s still disturbing. Tyrants invariably censor museums in their attempts to alter history. Augusto Pinochet, Nicolae Ceaucescu, and Francisco Franco, among others, censored museums to alter the historical record.

It is, I concede, slightly hyperbolic to compare the alteration of a tiny museum outside the EPA credit union to the censorship habits of some of the worst dictators of the 20th century. But Trump is attempting the same basic trick: to limit public discussion of a major issue by erasing it wherever he can. Pruitt and Trump say they want discussion and debate about climate change, but they obviously don’t. If they did, they would leave the museum intact as a historical record, and possibly add the administration’s own views as a counterpoint. Instead, they want to pretend the Paris climate agreement never happened and that climate change is a fairy tale parents (and teachers and scientists) tell children.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Trump’s already offensive wall will also endanger an already endangered species.

onEarth Story

Thanks to the Trump administration’s regulatory freeze, the endangered rusty patched bumblebee might not get the protections it desperately needs.

The Clean Power Plan is the most important step America can take to reduce the risks of climate change and build a better future.

onEarth Story

The president either completely misunderstands the Paris Agreement or has chosen to flagrantly mischaracterize it.

onEarth Story

Climate science is under its fiercest attack yet. But one group has been countering the onslaught—by connecting with everyday Americans in their own communities.

Policy Primer

The incoming head of the EPA believes states should be in charge of their own environmental regulations. Been there, done that, got the oil-soaked T-shirt.

Personal Action

We know that you know that Trump’s assessment of the Paris Agreement is way off base. Here’s how to convince those who don’t.

onEarth Story

A recent ruling on methane emissions serves as a smackdown to Pruitt’s EPA—and a way forward for environmentalists.

The Real Lowdown: The Trump and Congressional Republican Assault on Our Environment, Vol. 22

Courts put the brakes on the administration’s rollbacks while the House heads home with nothing to brag about.

Zavalnyuk Sergey/Alamy Stock Photo

These days, the Trump administration may be feeling like the singers in the old pop song, “I fought the law, and the law won.”

That’s because Trump’s pro-polluter rollbacks of our health and environmental safeguards are hitting choppy judicial waters.

On August 4, the Natural Resources Defense Council and partners asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt’s suspension of standards curbing methane and other harmful emissions from the nation’s landfills.

“Scott Pruitt’s suspension of EPA’s landfill pollution standards is a carbon copy of his illegal attempt to block methane standards for the oil and gas industry,” reasons David Doniger, director of NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air program. “The court threw out Pruitt’s illegal stay of the methane rules last month, and we’re asking it to do the same here.”

Indeed, on July 3, the appeals court overturned Pruitt’s effort to stay separate methane oil and gas standards, and on July 31 the full court ordered them into effect by a 9-2 vote.

Pruitt backs down

Pruitt lost another fight with the law this week. Under pressure from lawsuits brought by NRDC, its partners, and 16 states, Pruitt on August 2 abruptly reversed field on ozone standards, dropping a one-year delay he’d announced in June. That means the standards cutting emissions of smog-causing air pollutants will stay on track for their implementation date of October 1.

“It is no wonder Scott Pruitt beat a hasty retreat from holding up these important health standards,” said John Walke, NRDC’s clean air director. “He's been blatantly violating the law by obstructing legally required reductions in smog pollution.”

In a handful of environmental cases now, the Trump administration has been forced—in the face of lawsuits brought by NRDC and partners—to follow the law. They involve ozone, mercury and methane pollution, the rusty patched bumble bee, and energy efficiency standards.

More legal challenges ahead

Up ahead: a number of other lawsuits are pending on clean air, safe water, and climate action. Will Trump triumph, or will the law win? “For all of these things, now we may be able to hold the government to account,” Doniger says.

Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault

NRDC files suit to reinstate transportation climate safeguards

Also this past week, NRDC and partners sued the Federal Highway Administration to defend a key clean air standard. The lawsuit takes the department to task for illegally suspending, in May, Obama-era standards intended to reduce climate-changing pollution in the nation’s transportation sector.

Transportation is now the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, having surpassed those from power plants. The standards ask state highway and metropolitan transportation planners to track and try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their transportation plans and systems. This could give rise to cleaner air and smarter transportation options such as more bikeways and better public transit.

“The Trump administration broke the law by hitting the brakes on sensible transportation clean-air standards. We need them to protect our health today and to reduce climate chaos tomorrow,” says Deron Lovaas, an NRDC senior policy adviser.

What’s next? Perry proving Earth flat?

On July 27, the U.S. Department of Energy issued, from its official Twitter account, this curious tweet: “In the fight between @SecretaryPerry and climate scientists — He’s winning.” It linked to an editorial attacking the American Meteorological Society for its June letter blasting Perry for asserting in a television interview that “carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change.”

Well, hundreds, if not thousands, of leading scientists say that it certainly is.

House heads home with some ’splaining to do on clean energy cuts

Members of the House of Representatives have headed home for their August break with little to brag about, but with a need to explain why they’re pushing a misnamed “Make America Secure Appropriations Act.”

“It’s in stark opposition to the set of values shared by millions of Americans—one of clean air and clean water, equity and prosperity, and innovation and progress,” notes Elizabeth Noll, legislative director in NRDC’s Energy & Transportation program.

That’s this week’s Real Lowdown. NRDC has prepared a list of other far-ranging threats. And we’re vigilantly reporting on the administration’s assault on the environment through Trump Watch

Blog Post

Scott Pruitt wants to be a game show host to debate climate change, communities respond harshly to rolling back methane standards, and even Republicans are against offshore drilling.

Blog Post

Hundreds of safeguards that protect Americans are now in jeopardy and a court allows the EPA to continue putting kids at risk from a toxic pesticide.

Blog Post

The rollback of the Clean Water Rule has officially begun, a wildlife refuge is at risk from Trump’s border wall.

Blog Post

Scientists warn that the world is already experiencing the effects of climate change as Trump officially withdraws from the Paris Agreement.

The Real Lowdown: The Trump and Congressional Republican Assault on Our Environment, Vol. 21

The rollback of the Clean Water Rule has officially begun, a wildlife refuge is at risk from Trump’s border wall.


Back on June 21 at a political rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, President Trump promised that, under his watch, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would focus on delivering “clean air and clean, beautiful, crystal water. Nice, beautiful, clean water. That’s what we want, right? Right?”

Indeed. But how does that lofty promise square with the down-to-earth reality of the EPA’s long-telegraphed move, proposed this week, to gut Obama-era clean water protections? A round peg in a square hole, it seems.

A new proposed rule was published July 27 in the Federal Register, starting the process to roll back Clean Water Rule safeguards that would limit pollution in major bodies of water, rivers, streams, and wetlands—sources of drinking water for about one-third of all Americans.

The repeal “strikes directly at public health,” said NRDC President Rhea Suh, and makes it “easier for irresponsible developers and others to contaminate our waters and send the pollution downstream.” Remember, said Suh, development of the Clean Water Rule was informed by more than 400 stakeholder meetings nationwide, more than 1,200 peer-reviewed scientific publications, and more than a million public comments―from small-business owners, farmers, conservationists, anglers, hunters, industry, and others—some 87 percent of which supported the rule.

Trump and congressional Republicans also took other shots at health and environmental safeguards that protect the American people, our public lands, wildlife, and the climate.

Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault

Frack Attack

As part of the Trump administration’s wide-ranging drive to roll back federal safeguards, the Bureau of Land Management on July 25 proposed killing sensible rules finalized in 2015 for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public and tribal lands.

The federal standard has required oil and gas companies to disclose chemicals used in their operations, to manage fracking fluids that flow to the surface in a safer way, and to improve the construction of oil and gas wells in order to protect surrounding water supplies.

“While these rules still fall far short of what’s needed to reduce impacts from fracking, they would have provided some much-needed steps to better safeguard drinking water supplies, public health, and the environment,” said Amy Mall, an NRDC senior policy analyst. “This is just one more example of where this administration’s loyalties lie: with industry and polluters, not the people.”

Another Pollution Promoter Joins Team Trump

On July 24, the Senate confirmed, 53–43, David Bernhardt for the no. 2 post at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Bernhardt has lobbied for oil, mining, and western water interests, earning millions in legal and lobbying fees for his previous law firm.

“Mr. Bernhardt’s confirmation is another disturbing example of the Trump administration letting a polluters’ advocate police the same industries that paid him generously to push their anti-environmental agenda,” said NRDC legislative director Scott Slesinger. “This is the fox guarding the henhouse, except it’s the American people and their shared natural heritage that are in danger.”

Trump Will Skip Environmental Review of Border Wall

In the continuing saga of how much times have changed, it came to light this week that the Trump administration plans to invoke a 2005 counterterrorism law to bypass environmental impact studies of his ecologically ruinous plan for a wall along the U.S.– Mexico border. Last year, in the Obama era, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that construction of the wall—involving habitat destruction, noise, and truck traffic—would threaten more than 100 species, including the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi, cut off migration routes, and threaten the future of the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Tell Interior Secretary Zinke to stop the assault on our national monuments

Red Team, Blue Team Update

Fair and balanced? The EPA has reached out to the archconservative Heartland Institute to recruit participants for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s red team in his “red team, blue team” TV debate among scientists about climate change. In 2012, Heartland’s website declared that “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

The purpose of recruiting such climate antagonists to the red team, wrote John Holdren, who served as Obama’s chief science advisor, “would be to create a sense of continuing uncertainty about the science of climate change, as an underpinning of the Trump administration’s case for not addressing it. Sad.”

Pruitt’s Next Goal? Eliminate Legal Foundation for Cutting Greenhouse Gases

This week, Venezuela―the South American nation spiraling into internal economic, political, and social chaos—found time to join the Paris Agreement. That leaves just a few other major countries outside the global pact to address the dangers of climate change, most glaringly the United States of America.

Trump quit the Paris accord earlier this year largely on Pruitt’s push. Now Pruitt may have another big goal: undoing the EPA’s 2009 science-based “endangerment finding” that provides the legal foundation for greenhouse gas regulations of any kind. But to do that, he’ll have to prove that greenhouse gases aren’t damaging the environment or that carbon pollution from cars and trucks and power plants aren’t contributing, says David Doniger, director of NRDC’s Climate & Clean Air program. “And he will need to document it all with a double Mount Everest of data to offset the Mount Everest of data that shows that accumulated pollution does indeed endanger public health and welfare,” said Doniger. “No one thinks it's possible, especially with his resources and staff. He will be laughed out of court.”

That’s this week’s Real Lowdown. NRDC has prepared a list of other far-ranging threats. And we’re vigilantly reporting on the administration’s assault on the environment through Trump Watch.

Urge your governor to lead on climate action

Blog Post

We saw a major victory against the administration’s pro-polluter agenda—but the attack continues on our public lands, science, and clean energy.

Blog Post

Scott Pruitt wants to be a game show host to debate climate change, communities respond harshly to rolling back methane standards, and even Republicans are against offshore drilling.

Blog Post

Hundreds of safeguards that protect Americans are now in jeopardy and a court allows the EPA to continue putting kids at risk from a toxic pesticide.

Blog Post

Courts put the brakes on the administration’s rollbacks while the House heads home with nothing to brag about.

Blog Post

Scientists warn that the world is already experiencing the effects of climate change as Trump officially withdraws from the Paris Agreement.

Majority of North Carolinians Say No to Coastal Drilling
Franz Matzner
Cape Hattaras National Sea Shore

Credit: National Park Service

Just last week the State of North Carolina joined the tidal wave of national opposition to expanded offshore drilling that has continued to mount in the wake of the Trump administration’s attempts to scrap the just-finalized offshore leasing plan, roll back a host of worker and environmental safety standards, and jettison protections for our most sensitive, unspoiled public waters.

A survey of North Carolinians released today confirms that the public fully supports protection of these public waters over selling them off to private oil conglomerates. The clear majority of residents are acutely aware of the hazards to their economy, health, and quality of life that would come if drilling returns to the Atlantic Coast for the first time in over 30 years.

Highlights from the survey include:

  • 7 out of 10 North Carolinians reject the federal government’s plan to begin offshore drilling off the coast of North Carolina.
  • 72 percent of respondents are concerned about the risk of an oil spill, citing impacts to the tourism industry, potential job loss for themselves (or a loved one), and housing prices.
  • North Carolinians, especially those from coastal areas, perceive a host of harms from expanded drilling, including contaminated drinking water supplies (74 percent); release of chemicals dangerous to human health (74 percent); harm to wildlife and wildlife habitats (72 percent); oil spills (70 percent); potential lost jobs and reduced home values (69 percent); and diverting investment away from clean energy (67 percent).
  • More than twice as many North Carolina residents believe investment in clean energy—like wind and solar—is the wiser choice than offshore drilling of their coasts or anywhere in the Atlantic.

  • Women, African-Americans, and youth are particularly concerned with the prospect of offshore drilling in public waters, with young people (18-29) consistently expressing the strongest views against exposing the region to new drilling.
  • Opposition to drilling crosses partisan divides, with not a single segment of the population expressing majority support.

These findings leave not a shadow of a doubt that North Carolinians want to keep drill rigs and oil spills off their coasts and beaches. They are also consistent with the outpouring of support for protection over drilling that ultimately led the Federal Government to put in place protections for these vibrant waters less than six months ago.

Instead of reversing course, it is time for our public officials of all stripes to respect public opinion on how it wants its public oceans managed. These waters belong to you and me, not the fossil fuel industry.   

North Carolina Joins Offshore Drilling Opposition
Alexandra Adams

There’s been no small amount of pushback to President Trump’s recently announced plan to expose all our coasts to risky offshore drilling. But today another shoe dropped. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper drew a figurative line in the sand when he publicly denounced the plan and conveyed that North Carolina’s communities and quality of life are more important that private oil conglomerate profits. “I can sum it up in four words: not off our coast,” the Governor stated

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

U.S. National Park Service

Today’s announcement marks another critical moment when communities and state leaders are standing up to an administration that is ignoring citizens in favor of lining the pockets of oil companies. Governor Cooper’s statement won’t be the last we’ll see given all that coastal communities have to lose.

In fact, many of these communities already weighed in when the Department of the Interior completed its 2012-2022 Five-Year Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program just eight months ago. Upon making its determination to exclude the Atlantic ocean, the agency cited that not only had it received extensive opposition from citizens living along the Atlantic coast and their public officials, but that in the Mid- and South Atlantic Planning Areas ocean-dependent tourism accounted for more than $6.5 billion and $4.4 billion in value added to adjacent coastal areas. 

The agency went on to say that stakeholders had “expressed concern that oil and gas activities and their potential impacts could jeopardize existing economic activities and the health of important contributors to coastal economies.” And that was, in fact, the case. As of June 2017, 126 East Coast municipalities and more than 1,200 local, state and federal elected officials had formally opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic airgun blasting. And in the state of North Carolina that included chambers of commerce, restaurant associations, tourism boards, and fishing groups standing up to drilling off their coasts. But this sentiment was broad and came from all points in the country, with citizens understanding that these waters belong everyone.

Governor Cooper has acknowledged what many coastal state leaders are finding—not only is drilling a risk to booming tourism and fishing economies, but it is a direct threat to its citizens’ way of life. North Carolina residents know that drilling brings with it not only the risk of major spills, but routine pollution and industrialization of its coasts.

Governor Cooper’s statement today now adds him to the growing list of bipartisan leaders who have joined the fight against another effort to enrich oil companies while leaving communities high and dry. 


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