Trump Executive Orders Aim to Green Light Fossil Fuel Pipeline, Infrastructure Projects

Interview with Collin Rees, senior campaigner with Oil Change International, conducted by Scott Harris

In keeping with his long-standing dismissal of climate change as a hoax, President Trump signed a pair of executive orders on April 10 that would increase the speed at which the federal government would approve construction of fossil fuel projects through limiting environmental reviews. One of the Trump executive orders appears to target the Keystone XL pipeline, declaring that the decision to authorize infrastructure crossing international borders “shall be made solely by the President” rather than the State Department.
While these executive orders are part of a broader effort to use Trump’s executive authority to push through oil, gas and coal development, if upheld they could effectively shield the president’s actions from review by the courts.
One of Trump’s executive orders would limit the ability of states to review and reject pipelines and other projects under a section of the Clean Water Act. States have used that law in recent years to slow or block several pipeline projects across the country. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Collin Rees, senior campaigner with Oil Change International, who talks about his group’s response to Trump’s executive orders and how lawsuits and public opposition could effectively stop or slow down implementation that would increase the fossil fuel industry’s output of climate change inducing green house gas emissions.

COLIN REES: Recently Trump put out these two executive orders at the behest of his kind of Big Oil sponsors. We specifically know we’ve seen records of their calendar meetings with different agencies. We know that he has literally appointed an oil lobbyist now head of the Department of Interior, a coal lobbyist at the EPA. There is sort of rampant infiltration of the government by literally the oil and gas and coal industries right now. So it’s not a particular surprise. But the other interesting point that I like to make when I talk about these executive orders is that they’re also a sign that what we’re doing is exactly right, as far as those of us who are kind of fighting pipelines on the ground in the states fighting tooth and nail to keep the keystone XL pipeline from being built, to keep the Dakota access pipeline from being built, to stop these gas pipelines that are criss-crossing New York.

The reason that these two executive orders were passed – one deals with cross-border permits, and oil pipelines specifically and the other one deals with water permits at the state level that are among other things that are used to permit gas pipeline approvals. And the reason that the industry was so frustrated and kind of begged the Trump administration to put forward these executive orders is cause we’ve managed to stop a bunch of pipelines in the last few years.

New York state has stopped the Constitution pipeline. It has a couple of others that are still pending. Kind of all these important sites that we’ve won and continued to build power with these fights against pipelines. And that success was actually what drove those actions. So it certainly, it’s not a good thing and I don’t want to say that, but I think it is a sign that the strategy is working and that we kind of need to double down and make sure that our governors now stand up to challenge this, that our state attorney generals fight back. We’re of course going to be in the courts and in the streets pushing back as much as we can.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Colin, as you mentioned earlier, a whole coalition of environmental groups will no doubt challenge these executive orders in court through lawsuits. What are the prospects at the courts now with many more extremely conservative Trump federal judge appointees will give these lawsuits a fair hearing? And provide some balance here too, where the Trump administration wants to go in terms of letting the fossil fuel industry loose.

COLIN REES: It’s a great question, Scott. And a really valid worry. I am not a lawyer myself so I can’t speak to all of this, but I’ll just say that there are I think a few steps before we even get to that point. I think this is sort of a feature rather than a bug of the Trump administration that we’ve seen over the last few years. It’s sort of talking a big game, having a good PR set up, having a big launch event for your executive orders with a bunch of labor union folks in the background and oil industry folks and pipeline people. And then not really following through on the things that you say you’re doing. So I think the first step is seeing if the agencies even implement these executive orders. It’s taken them months in the past. There are some that have never even kind of gotten to the implementation stage.

So one of the questions is, are they going to implement it? Do they think it’s legally defensible? Are they willing to kind of even put it out there and let it be challenged by us? Or did they think it’s just too ridiculous on its face itself? So, if we do get through all those pieces and they kind of implement all the pieces that he signed and said he intended to push through recently then it does get tied up in legal challenges and goes to the court. And as you mentioned, the courts are not always our friends. Certainly, the legal system should not be the only recourse, as biased and prone as most human institutions are. And so I think it’s extremely important that we continue to fight in the streets, to fight at the state level, to be pushing back directly against the industry to continue this campaign in many, many different ways in addition to these legal challenges.

As we’ve seen, Republicans are not really our friends. A lot of Democrats are not our friends. A lot of the political system is not our friends, but we are increasingly seeing people come around and it’s because of the impact of people campaigning on the ground, pushing on local projects. If you’re in any of those states that I mentioned, if you’re in New York, if you’re in surrounding states, if you’re in Pennsylvania, if you’re in New Jersey, if you’re in Oregon, if you’re in Minnesota, there are very active fights in Virginia and North Carolina, West Virginia. All of these places and many more have very active fights right now over these permits, pushing Democratic governors to deny them. Get involved in a local level. Figure out how you can support local campaigns. We have quite a bit of this in our website and then make sure it gets out there.

Make sure it’s being heard and make sure that it’s very clear sort of what the choices are. The choices are the future wished for by the fossil fuel industry, pushed for by president Trump, sort of laid out on a silver platter exactly as they told him to. Or the future is one in which we actually come together as communities, create our own energy future together, democratize and own that and move forward in a way that creates commonwealth for all. And so I think we are really at a turning point here, but I have a lot of faith that if we organize together as communities and stand together for our values that we can really make a difference.

For more information on Oil Change International, visit priceofoil.org.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary