The Interior Sidelines Environmental Justice

In early September, DOI quietly rescinded two memos that provided guidance on protecting vulnerable communities and Native American sacred sites.

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 In early September, DOI quietly rescinded two policy memos that provided specific guidance on how to implement principles of environmental justice.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.

Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the elimination of the environmental justice and Native American trust policy memos are deeply troubling. “It seems to me more guidance is needed, not less,” he said.

“We’re already seeing a lot of impacts from years and years of looking the other way,” Eisenfeld added. “What we’ve been saying all along is that environmental justice and Indian trust resources and sacred sites—who’s responsible for that?”

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, the Executive Director of the Western Environmental Law Center, said he wasn’t surprised to learn that DOI had rescinded the two memos. The department, he said, has already made it abundantly clear that maximizing oil and gas development is its top priority.

“Their area of concern is the bottom line of the fossil fuel industry,” Schlenker-Goodrich said. “Damn the communities on the ground. They’re irrelevant to their decision making process.”

Unlike protections for clean air and water, environmental justice principles have never been codified into law. The two rescinded policy memos were issued in the wake of a 1994 executive order on environmental justice, which was seen as a necessary response to decades of environmental racism and the marginalization of low-income communities in government planning. But ensuring that the broad principles outlined in the executive order are applied at the agency level has been difficult. For instance, DOI’s departmental manual chapter on the subject, which lays out the responsibilities of bureaus in applying environmental justice principles, was only finalized the day before Trump’s inauguration.

Rather than build on efforts to strengthen the policy, DOI appears to be undermining it. According to an internal email from a high-level DOI advisor obtained by The Nation, the rollback of the environmental justice memo “signals that the department and bureaus have more flexibility on implementing EJ policy under NEPA.” Without the memos BLM field offices may have more discretion as to whether they conduct any kind of environmental justice analysis during environmental reviews of sensitive projects, such as oil and gas lease sales in New Mexico or drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

  • “Trump officials, at least at the department level, have been allergic to the notion of environmental justice from the get go.”

DOI says the elimination of the memos is part of a larger effort to update and reformat policies that had become redundant or were better addressed elsewhere. In a brief note explaining the decision, DOI’s Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance said the two rescinded policies have been superseded by the departmental manual chapter and “increased awareness, knowledge, and experience” on the part of Interior employees. According to DOI, the policy memos were too specific and the bureaus engaged in conducting environmental reviews needed increased flexibility in order to carry out their duties.

“These are all cosmetic,” OEPC director Michaela Noble said. “We are not changing practices or procedures.”

About the reporter

Adam Federman

Adam Federman

Adam Federman is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations.