One of the lesser-known components of President Donald Trump’s massive executive action Tuesday is a directive to revoke guidance from the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to agencies on how to include climate change during environmental reviews.
It sounds wonky, but the 34-page guidance was called a “game-changer” when it came out after years of legal battles over when and how agencies had to consider the climate when permitting massive infrastructure projects, including pipelines. Importantly, the guidance told agencies to look not only at the greenhouse gas emission from projects under review, but also at the potential impact climate change could have on the project going forward.
Christy Goldfuss was the managing director of CEQ from March 2015 until January of this year and oversaw the release of the guidance. She spoke with ThinkProgress about what revoking it means for the country and what it’s like to watch a president dismantle years of work on climate change.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the CEQ climate guidance came to be? Why is it so important to give agencies that directive?
The start of looking at climate change in NEPA really began 20 years ago. Folks who were at CEQ way back when were actually really excited when we did complete it. It was a longstanding question: How do you take the largest challenge for the environment and incorporate it into the decision-making for the government?
What’s so unique about the National Environmental Policy Act is that it doesn’t force you to make a decision based on the information, it simply asks that you share it with the public. You give the public a voice, and then you allow the decision-maker to see the full suite of impacts, so that we can make the most informed decision on the outcome.
“How do you take the largest challenge for the environment and incorporate it into the decision-making for the government?”
You said 20 years ago. Is that back when climate change was not a political [issue]?
It’s always been divided, but the science has been around a lot longer than I think people realize. And, yeah, at that time it was less of a lightning rod issue and more of commonsense.
Not everyone is familiar with NEPA. What kinds of projects did this guidance apply to and how is it supposed to work out in the world?
The National Environmental Policy Act applies to every federal decision. So that is something that is as significant as building a bridge or putting in a new highway or pipelines down to things that are totally insignificant, like, what paper you buy.
Ninety-five percent of the decisions that the federal government makes don’t go through any kind of process. We call them “categorically excluded.” We say, “all right, you don’t have to go through this.” The large impacts to the environment and those major infrastructure projects, that’s where the whole purpose for NEPA was — to give the public some insight into where the project might go.
Prior to NEPA, the general public had no insight into why the government was doing what the government was doing or into what the potential impacts would be. NEPA really became the gold standard for allowing the public to see what might happen in their backyards.
Now that this guidance has been revoked, do federal agencies have some discretion as to what they do tell the public? Is climate information something the public could demand? What happens now that the guidance is gone?
The courts have already said that agencies must consider climate in their NEPA analysis. Now, every agency will decide for themselves how they want to incorporate climate change, which is very confusing for companies, because there is no uniform approach to presenting the analysis.
Really, the whole point of the guidance was to allow for consistency, so that when a company or a project sponsor was going through various permits they would know that, whether it was with the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA, across the board, this was going to be the approach taken. Now, we’re back to where you’re going to get completely inconsistent approaches across the federal government. And when people decide not to look at climate change, it will increase litigation risk, which slows down projects as well.
“When people decide not to look at climate change, it will increase litigation risk.”
So, this is kind of the opposite of [EPA Administrator Scott] Pruitt’s “regulation is supposed to make things regular” thing?
[Laughing] Yes — and it’s the opposite of Donald Trump wanting to expedite permitting processes. This is going to make it more complicated and less streamlined than if these procedures were in place.
OK, so, given that, and given that most people in the country are worried about climate change, what is the benefit for Trump or his supporters in revoking this?
I honestly don’t think people understand how much is lost here.
The obvious answer is that corporations and industry that really pushed to ignore environmental review would be the winners, but given that there is caselaw on this already, and given that the American public demands it, they are just going to end up back in court. It’s going to slow down whatever processes they have, and they already lost on this question before. So, I don’t know who ends up winning. I do think this is kind of a prime example of policy getting caught up in ideology and not really recognizing the practical implications.
“I honestly don’t think people understand how much is lost here.”
Do you think that the guidance is something that ultimately is going to have to be reissued, in some form?
Yes. Over time, the government will once again have to answer the question of how do agencies address climate change.
Now, they could take it in a totally different direction, but they are still going to have to answer that question, because the court has said agencies need to consider climate change in environmental review.
At some point, there are costs, and when you are doing a cost-benefit analysis then you have to look at facts and reality.
Yes. And the whole other side — the very basic part of the climate guidance was to answer the question, one, yes you need to consider climate change; two, you analyze the amount of greenhouse gases emissions there are for the project; but three, if you are building and spending federal dollars on building, you need to do it to standards that mean we are not wasting taxpayer dollars. So that’s the other side of this. When you’re building a bridge, don’t build it in the floodplain. When you’re building anything — a hospital, any kind of effort that takes a fairly large federal investment — do it based on the best available climate science.
I’m thinking of agencies like HUD, and their expertise might not be climate science, but it’s really important to make sure you’re not building homes [in the path of potential destruction].
Yeah, it’s very important — Sean Donovan [former director of the Office of Management and Budget], and then Harriet Tregoning, who was over at HUD [as head of the resiliency office], really were on the cutting edge of best practices. How do you build to climate standards so that you’re not wasting taxpayer dollars? After Sandy we learned a ton about how to take into account sea-level rise and how to make sure that we’re building in a way that means we’re not going to have to rebuild in five years or 10 years.
So. Going forward, now that we’re here…
Elections matter, people. Elections matter.
Right. We’ve also learned that CEQ has been moved out of its old office space. So, beyond this particular guidance and the repercussions there, what other kinds of things has CEQ done in the past, and what does it mean to you that Trump has — even literally — distanced himself from the Council?
Certainly symbolically it is very difficult to see the organization play a diminished role.
CEQ’s whole role is to coordinate information across agencies on behalf of the president, representing the environmental outcomes they want to see. CEQ has a regulatory function that is unique to a lot of White House [councils]. Most others are just political operatives. It is also the job of CEQ to interface with the public about environmental impacts.
I think [the Trump administration] will find over time that CEQ serves an important purpose, regardless of the administration — Republican or Democrat — and that they will need to staff the office to communicate with the public and to ensure that they don’t make more legally questionable decisions.
To shut the public out in such a critical way at such a critical time, with everything that’s happening with climate change, is very discouraging. NEPA is a very important environmental tool, and as the public gets more upset about some of these decisions, they will demand someone to interface with them.
“To shut the public out in such a critical way at such a critical time… is very discouraging.”
Zooming out a little bit to all of the things included in the executive order, what’s it like seeing Trump dismantle so many policies that you and others worked on for so long — policies that are intended to save losing trillions of dollars and an untold number of lives from the ravages of climate change?
It makes me so angry to watch them dismantle all of these policies — that were really created with industry input, modeled on best practices, and used best available science to really better the lives of Americans. It seems incredibly short-sighted and really difficult to understand how a businessman — who wants to highlight best practices from corporation and the greatest business leaders of this time — is doing the exact opposite for the federal government and for the American taxpayer.
It is so wasteful, and beyond that it is recklessly dangerous with the place that we all live.
Christy Goldfuss is now vice president for energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Goldfuss’ position at CEQ. She was managing director.