Nineteen attorneys general say new draft guidance issued by the Trump administration fails to adequately assess greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts of proposed projects. Photo credit: U.S. Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Balinda O’Neal Dresel

By Dana Drugmand

A coalition of 19 attorneys general is pushing back against what they say is an attempt by the Trump administration to disregard climate change impacts when conducting environmental reviews as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The attorneys general filed a comment letter on Tuesday opposing the Council on Environmental Quality’s draft guidance regarding greenhouse gas emissions, which was issued in June. They say the draft guidance directs federal agencies to consider only a limited scope of a project’s contribution to emissions and to essentially ignore climate impacts and risks. 

“This reckless guidance by the Trump Administration leads agencies to ignore the climate crisis, the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “We’re reminding President Trump once again – if you try to backslide on the safeguards protecting our nation’s environment and put polluters in the driver’s seat, we will hold you accountable.

The coalition of state attorneys general—all Democrats, from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia—strongly oppose the proposed changes.

The draft guidance is “inadequate and unlawful” and “largely identifies opportunities for—and indeed appears to encourage—agencies to avoid adequately assessing [greenhouse gas] emissions and climate impacts of proposed projects,” said the attorneys general.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a bedrock environmental statute enacted in 1969, requires federal agencies to undertake a review of environmental impacts and consider alternative actions and mitigation measures for actions or projects that “significantly affect the quality of the human environment.” The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which administers NEPA, issues guidance for how agencies should approach the environmental review process, including how they evaluate greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts.

CEQ guidance finalized in 2016 by the Obama administration mandated federal agencies to undertake a thorough evaluation of potential climate change-related impacts for projects that trigger direct or indirect greenhouse gas emissions or that otherwise have potential climate change-related impacts.

President Trump directed the CEQ to withdraw that guidance in 2017.

The attorneys general are asking the administration to not only readopt the 2016 guidance, but to strengthen it “to reflect the severe and pervasive threats from climate change.” 

The Trump administration’s new draft guidance “fails to address climate change and its impacts” and “does not take the threat of climate change seriously,” said the attorneys general.

They also warned that the CEQ “is creating additional legal risk for both federal agencies and project applicants. 

The Trump administration is already facing a lawsuit filed by 21 young plaintiffs from around the country who say the federal government is violating their Constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by promoting an energy system that exacerbates climate change. The plaintiffs are asking for a science-based program to reduce carbon emissions and protect the climate for future generations.

While a critical comment letter is not as forceful as a lawsuit, it could help lay the groundwork for future legal challenges, according to Vermont Law School environmental law professor Patrick Parenteau. 

Parenteau said the public comment from the attorneys general, which carries more weight than other comments, could add to the court record to bolster subsequent lawsuits, including legal challenges to fossil fuel leasing. The federal government is legally obligated to respond to the comments.

The attorneys general say the administration is willfully ignoring the climate crisis to the detriment of communities across the country. 

“Forests are ablaze, sea levels are rising and hurricanes are intensifying—and yet the Trump administration is encouraging federal agencies to ignore climate change when considering the environmental impact of their actions,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on Twitter.

“This puts the health, safety, and economic well-being of our communities at risk, just for another handout to anti-science polluters.”

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