The Interior Department Is Sidelining Environmental Justice

Aerial view of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Digital Library

New Mexico’s San Juan county is no stranger to the unequal impacts of resource extraction. The residents of this arid region in the north western corner of the state, once declared an “energy sacrifice zone,” have lived with the legacy of energy development for decades, from uranium mining during the height of the Cold War to coal, oil and gas production that continues to this day. The county suffers from high rates of ozone and methane pollution, and Native and low-income communities there have for years fought for stronger environmental justice protections. Progress has been slow but there was cautious optimism that the Department of the Interior, which manages much of the land in the county, would address some of their concerns in a forthcoming regional management plan.

But now it appears the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction, undoing years of work to raise the profile of environmental justice within the department. In early September, DOI quietly rescinded two policy memos that provided specific guidance on how to implement principles of environmental justice. The first memo, issued in 1995, instructed bureaus to look at impacts of proposed projects and, where necessary, to evaluate the environmental consequences on vulnerable communities or human health. The second memo, drafted two years later, addressed Interior’s responsibility to protect Native American trust resources and sacred sites on federal lands. In addition to rescinding the memos, the department has delayed publication of a manual on how to conduct environmental justice analyses and has asked BLM employees to review environmental justice policy in the context of an “energy dominance” agenda.

These changes have taken place against the backdrop of an ongoing, sweeping overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act, the landmark 1969 law that mandated environmental considerations in government planning. This administration, however, has largely viewed NEPA as an impediment to energy development. Last year, a DOI secretarial memo dramatically reduced the amount of time and space allocated for environmental reviews as well as public involvement in the process. At the same time, the administration is pursuing an aggressive strategy of energy development on public lands and deregulation of environmental protections that could adversely impact vulnerable populations. 11-13-18

Read more at The Investigative Fund