How Trump agencies’ NEPA reviews lowball climate impacts

By Adam Aton | 10/09/2019 06:38 AM EDT

In environmental reviews that precede major federal actions, the Trump administration describes worsening damage to virtually every ecosystem. But it uses the same documents to minimize the connection between that damage and human emissions — especially when it’s weighing the impacts of fossil fuel projects.

Caribou migrate in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Trump administration argues that oil drilling in ANWR would not meaningfully contribute to climate change.

Caribou migrate in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Trump administration argues that oil drilling in ANWR would not meaningfully contribute to climate change. Michio Hoshino/Minden Pictures/Newscom

Trump administration officials tend to talk around climate change, but in official documents, they outline an unfolding crisis of extinctions, flooding and fire.

Agencies under President Trump are cataloging climate impacts in the mandatory environmental reviews that precede major federal actions. They describe worsening damage to virtually every ecosystem, from entire forests down to the ocean’s smallest life forms. But officials use those same documents to minimize the connection between that damage and human-caused emissions, especially when the government is considering the impacts of fossil fuel projects, like drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What emerges from these documents is a story of the Trump administration in microcosm. While officials tell the public not to worry about climate change, they’re running departments that warn of massive damage already unfolding. The administration masks its contribution to that damage by pointing to the small impact of individual oil wells and coal mines — a distraction, experts say, from its energy agenda’s huge cumulative impact.


The documents show that without a broad look at government-sanctioned emissions, the Trump administration has been able to downplay the climate impacts of individual fossil fuel projects and regulatory rollbacks as too insignificant to affect global temperatures.

For example, the administration has said it’s impossible to estimate an oil lease’s emissions because it depends on the drilling equipment, extra infrastructure like pipelines and the oil’s final use. Officials claim it’s impossible to know if forgoing an oil lease would lower emissions. Whatever the true drilling impact, they often say, it’s too small on its own to change global temperatures.

The consequences of these halfhearted climate analyses are still taking shape. They’re unlikely to jeopardize individual projects, experts say, but some see it as a legal vulnerability that could critically delay Trump’s agenda as the administration scrambles to lock in its actions before the 2020 election.

If what’s missing from the documents could be problematic, then what’s included could also prove damaging in the hands of an energized climate movement.

The Trump administration’s own environmental reviews reveal a road map to the country’s biggest climate vulnerabilities: Arctic birds could suffer "catastrophic" effects of warming. Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests face a "clear threat" from changing conditions. Shifts in where ticks and mosquitoes can infect people with diseases like plague and Zika are "already occurring."

Some experts read these admissions as the product of career scientists quietly working in a little-noticed arena. Others see a more insidious pattern.

In some cases, the Trump administration’s environmental reviews have framed climate change as an unstoppable global force that swamps U.S. actions: Federal greenhouse gas rules are irrelevant amid rising international emissions; the local impacts of drilling are drowned out by the sweeping ecological changes of global warming.

That framing is a way to protect fossil fuel interests without the extra burden of fighting science, advocates said.

"This is a coordinated effort across agencies," said Rachel Cleetus, policy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate and energy program.

"The thread that’s running through it all is that basically, first: Deny, deny, deny. Then, when you have to concede the science, because it’s real and obvious and there’s such overwhelming evidence, you go to exactly this place. … ‘There’s nothing to be done about it, so let’s just let the worst-case scenario unfold.’"

‘The most significant threat’

Donald Trump. Photo credit: SIPA/Newscom
President Trump departs the White House on Saturday. His administration downplays the effects of fossil fuel projects on climate change. | Sipa/Newscom

More than 150 years ago, leprosy arrived in the Kingdom of Hawaii.

King Kamehameha V, watching an epidemic unfold, exiled anyone with the disease to the remote Kalaupapa peninsula, where sufferers would be quarantined by cliffs on one side and ocean on the other. It was more of an open-air prison than a hospital. A man who was sent there at age 13 recalled the guards telling him, "This is your last place. This is where you are going to stay, and die."

More than 15 cemeteries and several hundred unmarked graves rest on the low-lying peninsula. The quarantine law was lifted in 1969 after a leprosy treatment was developed, though some residents chose to stay in the only home they’d ever known. About a dozen still live there today.

But tomorrow is an open question.

The National Park Service found in 2018 that Kalaupapa’s historic buildings and cultural sites are threatened by sea-level rise. So is the land itself; the peninsula’s sandy beaches are being "reduced or eliminated" by climate-fueled erosion, leaving sea creatures without nesting spots. Hawaii has experienced more than 5 inches of sea-level rise already, and large waves that appear without warning — so-called sneaker waves — can penetrate deep into the coastal park, the service’s environmental review found.

A more detailed analysis of climate impacts was shelved, even as Hawaii warned that federal actions "do not engage" with the state’s climate plan. The park service declined to use the 2018 review to dive deep into climate impacts — despite a 2015 draft of the review that had discussed it at length.

That’s not unusual under the Trump administration; climate change analysis is often brief, vague or equivocal, according to a review of about 20 environmental documents prepared by several agencies under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

For example, an environmental assessment for an oil and gas lease sale near Salt Lake City spends about 12 paragraphs explaining climate science’s uncertainties. Tucked among those dozen paragraphs is the single, crowded sentence that describes tangible climate impacts.

"Broadly stated," the document says, climate change is bringing "more frequent and intense heat waves, longer fire seasons and more severe wildfires, degraded air quality, more heavy downpours and flooding, increased drought, greater sea-level rise, more intense storms, harm to water resources, harm to agriculture, ocean acidification, and harm to wildlife and ecosystems."

This treatment is no accident. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has ordered page limits for environmental reviews, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality has released draft guidance that would allow agencies more flexibility to avoid comprehensive estimates of climate impacts.

The administration could be risking its own agenda with such cursory analyses, experts said.

NEPA, the law that governs environmental reviews, says the government can pursue actions that agencies know could harm the environment, so long as it has taken a "hard look" at the consequences. But if courts find that a "hard look" has left something out — like a project’s climate impact, for instance — then judges can order the feds to redo the environmental review, potentially delaying actions by months or longer as the administration races to finalize its decisions before the 2020 elections.

That has already stung the Trump administration. At least 40 lawsuits against the feds hinge on environmental reviews, and courts have delayed major actions on issues like the Keystone XL pipeline and federal coal leasing due to inadequate climate analysis, according to a report by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

Political pressure to sideline climate analysis has run up against a body of science that’s getting better at forecasting damage, said David Hayes, formerly the Interior Department’s top lawyer and deputy secretary under the Clinton and Obama administrations. Those scientific advancements make it untenable for agencies to argue ignorance or uncertainty, he said.

"The reality is that the administration is in a corner," Hayes said.

"It’s denied the science, but scientists that participate in the preparation of [environmental reviews] have no choice but to explain what’s really happening. And as a result … the courts are not willing to defer to the administration, given its hypocrisy."

The tension is especially apparent in places where the climate is warming most quickly, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the environmental review does describe an ecosystem undergoing profound damage (Climatewire, Sept. 13).

Climate change poses "the most significant threat" to Arctic wetlands. Melting sea ice is causing the shoreline to erode by 6 to 59 feet per year, "dramatically" altering habitat or "possibly eliminating the barrier island-lagoon systems across the entire Arctic coast."

Such habitat loss could contribute to "catastrophic" impacts on birds, putting dozens at risk of extinction. Warm waters have brought seabird die-offs, "which previously have been rare." Caribou and reindeer have already lost more than half their wild population across the Arctic. Polar bears, seals and whales are all struggling to adapt to "pronounced changes" in sea ice happening "at rates higher than previously predicted."

"The greatest concern for marine mammals in the reasonably foreseeable future is the continued arctic warming trend," the environmental review says.

Page rip text of NPS pdf about sea level rise. Photo credit: National Park Service
| National Park Service

Those findings came after federal scientists complained that their work in a draft review had been changed or deleted to downplay drilling impacts, as first reported by Politico. Chad Padgett, state director for the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska, said in a call with reporters that Interior had relied on the best available science and that climate impacts would be more closely examined at a later stage.

Other environmental reviews convey alarming changes accelerating across the country. Experts say these kind of disclosures could possibly be used against the government in climate change lawsuits like Juliana v. United States.

Massachusetts could lose 61 species of birds that are "highly vulnerable" to climate change. Sea turtle habitats are washing away "due to climate change from North Carolina to Texas." Coastal ecosystems are approaching a "tipping point" where damage becomes "irreversible." Adaptive forests and farms are being "outpaced" by climate change, and they will suffer further declines over the next 25 years as progress on global hunger becomes "questionable." Climate change is even hurting children by worsening air quality, which is associated with "developmental problems" and "exacerbating asthma."

But advocates say the administration is pulling a trick here.

Forced to reckon with climate forecasts, the administration argues that fossil fuel development wouldn’t cause anywhere near the damage that global warming will. By a sleight of hand, advocates say, the administration’s climate denial morphs into a defense of oil drilling based on climate science.

In environmental reviews, that looks like this: "The large magnitude of climate change effects, accompanied by increases in already high climate variability in the Arctic, are likely to overshadow smaller magnitude impacts of oil development."

The administration resolves this contradiction by eliding the ways its actions contribute to emissions, experts say.

"It’s really shocking when their own documents recognize these really potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change," said Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"The science of what’s happening is undeniable, it’s measurable, it’s pretty clear. And yet there’s continuing to be this terrible resistance [from Trump officials] to any type of action to curtail emissions. … So it’s a circular logic, where they say, ‘Who knows what will happen with emissions?’ — but they’re doing everything to drive up emissions."

Big picture vs. small slices

The Trump administration has already admitted it sees a worst-case scenario unfolding.

Deep in the draft environmental review of the administration’s clean cars rule rollback, officials predicted atmospheric carbon would nearly double over the 21st century to levels last seen millions of years ago, when the poles were warm enough to support crocodiles (Climatewire, Aug. 7, 2018).

The administration actually presented two dire numbers: carbon dioxide levels with the Obama administration’s stronger rule and CO2 levels with Trump’s rollback, separated by a difference of about 0.08%. "This leads to very small differences in these [climate] effects," the administration said of the rollback. It said cutting vehicle emissions enough to maintain a safe climate "is not currently technologically feasible or economically practicable."

Environmentalists rage at the administration’s open admission that it’s worsening climate change. Emissions might be the Achilles’ heel of the Trump administration’s environmental reviews, some experts say.

But such a vulnerability would probably lie in the rigor of the analyses themselves, rather than their conclusions of climate harm.

The government is free to greenlight projects that worsen climate change, as long as it acknowledges that that is what it’s doing.

"There is not yet any law that explicitly says, ‘The federal government cannot contribute to climate change,’" said Michael Gerrard, a Columbia Law School professor who specializes in climate law.

Trump’s agencies have mostly resisted a sweeping analysis of their policies, preferring a piecemeal approach that examines the emissions impacts from individual projects — each of which is relatively small — rather than the collective impact of all those projects, which might be big. The George W. Bush administration also favored that tactic until the Supreme Court swatted it down as part of the 2007 landmark climate case Massachusetts v. EPA, Gerrard said.

David Doniger, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the administration looks for any opportunity to deem impacts too small to regulate, on greenhouse gases as well as other pollutants. He compared that approach to eating a whole pizza that’s been sliced into tiny pieces: "It still has the same number of calories."

Page rip text of BLM document about climate change. Photo credit: BLM
| Bureau of Land Management

Some courts are losing patience with Trump’s revival of that move, experts said. The Obama administration had already started to feel judicial pressure to expand its climate analysis, and under Trump, the courts are becoming more forceful. Courts generally decline to second-guess agency conclusions, but they do intervene if they find an agency has omitted something important.

In 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must analyze the downstream climate impacts of pipelines. In 2018, a New Mexico federal court rebuked the Bureau of Land Management for not considering the climate impacts of opening a national forest to drilling. In March, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that Interior had insufficiently explained how a Wyoming oil and gas lease sale could affect climate change. And in April, a Montana federal court ordered Interior to conduct an environmental review before lifting the Obama administration’s coal leasing moratorium.

The April decision on federal coal leasing demonstrated the Trump administration’s aversion to looking at broad emission trends.

The Obama administration had halted new coal leasing while it assessed the program’s cumulative impact on global warming. The Trump administration scrapped that review with an order by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, but a Montana court ruled that the administration needed an environmental review of its own to restart coal leasing. Interior grumbled that "to date no [secretarial order] has required NEPA analysis" and produced a document that claimed restarting coal leasing would not increase emissions but would just change their timing (Climatewire, May 28).

That episode demonstrates how environmental reviews can help a president who cares about climate change, or they can be a hindrance to a president who denies it, said Randi Spivak, the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program director.

About 25% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from public lands. But the Trump administration’s environmental reviews don’t engage with that big picture, Spivak said, comparing the administration’s approach to a shell game: It shuffles emissions analyses through different kinds of documents — resource management plans, environmental impact statements, drilling permits — until they’re hard to track.

"At every stage of the game, BLM says, ‘Oh, we’ll do a more site-specific analysis [later],’" Spivak said, but by the time BLM gets down to the drilling level, there’s little climate analysis to be done and few ways to change course, because the agency has already granted a lease. She added that the Center for Biological Diversity has homed in on that practice in its lawsuits.

Trump administration officials respond that natural gas is the reason U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen even as the economy has grown. Easier federal permitting can lead to more cheap gas, which in turn can push dirtier coal-fired power plants offline.

"The Trump administration is committed to addressing environmental challenges in order to ensure the highest quality of life to all Americans. The Department of the Interior’s role is to follow the laws in carrying out our responsibilities using the best science, and we are continuing to work to best understand and address the impacts of an ever-changing climate," an Interior spokesperson said.

To be sure, the Trump administration is not wrong that individual projects each have a small impact on climate change. And it is a complex matter to forecast emissions from actions like oil and gas leases because they draw from so many assumptions, like how a lease could affect the rest of the market, said Lynn Scarlett, who was deputy Interior secretary during the Bush administration.

"Difficult isn’t even quite the right word. You have to question whether you’re getting really meaningful results" from analyzing individual projects’ emissions, she said.

NEPA is important, but it’s not the best tool to understand emissions because it’s inherently oriented toward projects rather than the big picture, she added. Federal agencies, and even the entire executive branch, would get more meaningful climate information by examining how emissions react to their broad policies on things like coal and renewables, she said.

The Trump administration’s failure to take that broad approach matters more than the words of any individual environmental review, Scarlett said.

"These matters are complicated," she said. "It’s not just the mere fact of ‘Well, did they put something in there about climate?’ … All of this nests within the broader context that the administration has not put leadership focus on climate change."