The coronavirus pandemic has brought life to a standstill in many parts of the world, but much to the dismay of environmental and activists, it isn’t holding back President Donald Trump’s efforts to weaken clean-air protections and sell off public lands for private gain.
In recent weeks, as businesses across the country have closed their doors and millions of Americans have become preoccupied with how to keep their families safe, Trump administration officials have quietly forged ahead with plans for sweeping rollbacks of environmental regulations. They’ve fast-tracked proposals to limit scientific input in agency decision-making and weaken enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and given federal approval to a pipeline that would transfer natural gas extracted on Colorado’s Western Slope to an export terminal in Oregon.
Meanwhile, even as the price of oil crashes worldwide and drillers announce plans to cut back on production, the Bureau of Land Management has continued to offer up large swaths of public land in the West in its quarterly oil and gas lease sales. The BLM sold the drilling rights to nine parcels of land totaling more than 10,400 acres in its latest Colorado lease sale on Thursday, March 26.
The administration’s actions have come despite pleas from a wide range of environmental and public-lands groups to suspend public-comment periods, oil and gas lease sales and other major policy developments until the COVID-19 crisis is over.
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“The Trump administration has already gone to extraordinary lengths to stifle and ignore public input to enact its drill-everywhere agenda,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement last week. “Ramming through major policies while the country battles a global pandemic would only add to its legacy of corporate charity and environmental destruction.”
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees nearly 250 million acres of public land across the West and opened a new headquarters in Grand Junction this year, has said little about the pandemic as it has gradually upended daily life over the past few weeks. In a public notice for a major lease sale in New Mexico scheduled for May, the agency said it had closed its offices to in-person visits and would only accept public comments on the proposal through mail and email.
“All of our actions, including comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for proper public input while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees,” the agency said.
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Opponents of the Trump administration's deregulation agenda have been highly critical of its public-engagement efforts even in the best of times. Now they're worried that a spiraling health and economic crisis, combined with a lack of opportunities for public hearings and protests, could clear a path for Trump officials to do even more harm to environmental rules and conservation efforts.
"In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, state and local governments, small and large businesses, public land and resource users, educational institutions, fish and wildlife managers, and many more face serious disruption in their daily lives," advocates with WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project wrote in a letter to BLM director William Perry Pendley last week. "There is no doubt that ability for all interest groups to weigh in on BLM management actions is currently severely constrained."
As the impact of the crisis deepens, there are signs that these fears are well founded. In an unprecedented move announced in a memo to staff on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency is indefinitely suspending its enforcement of air- and water-quality rules, leaving environmental activists shocked and fearful about what might come next.
"This is an open license to pollute. Plain and simple," Gina McCarthy, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement on the EPA's decision. "The administration should be giving its all toward making our country healthier right now. Instead it is taking advantage of an unprecedented public health crisis to do favors for polluters that threaten public health."