State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Environmental Protection and Infrastructure Investments Are Necessities, Not Luxuries

To President Trump and some of his friends, a clean environment seems to be an afterthought. This is a 20th-century mindset that I found typical when I first started to work on environmental issues in 1975, but it has become less common with time. In the 1980s, we learned that pollution was not simply unpleasant but could be deadly. That exposure to toxic chemicals could cause cancer. Most Americans understand that their family’s health requires clean water and clean air. Under the guise of regulatory efficiency and the priority of infrastructure construction to bring back the economy, the Trump Administration has devoted the early days of June to a relentless attack on environmental regulation. They also seem to think that the point of building infrastructure is profits and job creation, rather than the recurring benefits of public capital investments.

The administration’s latest anti-regulatory surge began with an attack on the practice of state governments using the Clean Water Act to protect water supplies from energy infrastructure projects. As Lisa Friedman reported in the New York Times on June 1:

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced that it had limited states’ ability to block the construction of energy infrastructure projects, part of the Trump administration’s goal of promoting gas pipelines, coal terminals and other fossil fuel development. The completed rule curtails sections of the U.S. Clean Water Act that New York has used to block an interstate gas pipeline, and Washington employed to oppose a coal export terminal. The move is expected to set up a legal clash with Democratic governors who have sought to block fossil fuel projects. Specifically, it limits to one year the amount of time states and tribes can take to review a project and restricts states to taking water quality only into consideration when judging permits. The Trump administration has accused some states of blocking projects for reasons that go beyond clean water considerations, such as climate change impacts.”

One could argue that a more efficient regulatory system could decide such an issue in one year. But that would require that deadlines also be imposed on corporations providing data, courts reviewing cases, and the federal government moving to address disputes between states and companies. The only entities under a deadline here are the state governments seeking to protect their water quality. The wisdom of continuing to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure might also be challenged, although I suspect that in the not-too-distant future the market will take care of this as investors begin to understand that renewable energy is a better investment than fossil fuels. But finance aside, the issue here is regulation. I agree that the regulatory process is inefficient. But for the Trump Administration, the only efficient regulatory process seems to be no regulatory process. And any excuse to get rid of regulation will do.

As Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman reported in the New York Times on June 4:

The Trump administration, in twin actions to curb environmental regulations, moved on Thursday to temporarily speed the construction of energy projects and to permanently weaken federal authority to issue stringent clean air and climate change rules. President Trump signed an executive order that calls on agencies to waive required environmental reviews of infrastructure projects to be built during the pandemic-driven economic crisis. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a new rule that changes the way the agency uses cost-benefit analyses to enact Clean Air Act regulations, effectively limiting the strength of future air pollution controls. Together, the actions signal that Mr. Trump intends to speed up his efforts to dismantle environmental regulations… By changing the way the government weighs the value of the public health benefits, Andrew Wheeler, the E.P.A. administrator, would allow the agency to justify weakening clean air and climate change regulations with economic arguments. Mr. Trump’s executive order would use “emergency authorities” to waive parts of the cornerstone National Environmental Policy Act to spur the construction of highways, pipelines and other infrastructure projects.”

Linking these regulatory cutbacks to infrastructure projects that could spur economic recovery is understandable given the ideological biases of the administration, but it seems to be doubling down on the argument that the best infrastructure we can build is the stuff that damages our health. That is simply nonsense. Our existing infrastructure is falling apart. Reconstruction of rails, ports, roads, tunnels, urban parks, schools, libraries and the energy grid would provide far more economic and societal benefits with far lower economic, environmental and human health costs. We could invest in bike paths and mass transit if we are looking for new projects to build. All infrastructure investment is not created equal. The best shovel ready projects tend to be those that are rebuilding infrastructure that is falling apart. Spend money and put people to work getting rid of lead water pipes. Spend money and put people to work installing solar panels and building smart grids. Create public-private partnerships to design, build and manage rebuilt facilities.

The problem is that the ideologues running the country do not seem to recognize the importance of public capital investment in infrastructure or the importance of government enforcement of rules that protect public health. FDR’s New Deal built dams, parks, airports, roads, bridges and provided for rural electrification. People were put to work building projects that provided continuous benefits to society. The idea was not to make money for corporations, although plenty made money, but to provide benefits to the public. Environmental rules can delay projects, but they also save lives and money. No one really likes to have their behavior modified by rules, but the alternative is chaos. We need a sophisticated analytic base for decisions on how to grow our economy without damaging the planet. We need to improve the speed and efficiency of analysis and decision-making for capital projects. But that rapid analysis should be undertaken to improve the benefits and reduce the costs of projects. Not to line the pockets of corporate executives and shareholders. If the projects provide public benefits, the private sector should benefit as well. But when developing infrastructure, the public interest should take priority over private interests.

Infrastructure investment and environmental regulation need to be interconnected, not seen as conflicting concepts. The administration should try to leave the mindset of the 1980s and enter the world that now exists. It is a world with a global economy, close to eight billion people, and threats from a global pandemic, a climate crisis and ecosystem destruction. Human ingenuity and technological innovation can be deployed to address these crises and market forces can propel change. But those market forces must be regulated and governed to balance their central function of profit with the public’s need for protection.

The Trump Administration lacks compassion and competence and seems unable to distinguish fact from fiction. This is obvious to anyone looking at its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our economic meltdown, and the growing movement to end racism. The Trump Administration continues to defy the reality of the world we live in as it tries to recreate an imagined world of the past. In our environmental past, Los Angeles was encased in smog, rivers caught fire and toxic chemicals contaminated the homes of people living near the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York. Is that the greatness the president wants America to return to? The crises we are encountering are also opportunities to bring about fundamental change. Just as the Great Depression and World War II changed America, this pandemic, economic crisis and the demand to finally end institutional and all other forms of racism is an opportunity to make a more perfect union. A clean and healthy environment and environmental justice are necessities and not luxuries. A fair and just society with the opportunity for individuals to succeed and a safety net to catch those who do not is also a necessity for our nation.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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