› Trump v. Earth

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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