President Trump on Jan. 24 signed orders giving the go-ahead for construction of the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, which had been halted by the Obama administration. Obama's State Department rejected a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Army Corps of Engineers had ordered work halted on the Dakota pipeline after weeks of protests by Native American groups and their activist allies. In a signing statement, Trump said the Keystone XL project will mean "a lot of jobs, 28,000 construction jobs, great construction jobs." In its own statement, TransCanada, the company seeking to build Keystone XL, said it "appreciate[s] the President of the United States inviting us to re-apply for KXL. We are currently preparing the application and intend to do so."
Trump also signed a decree mandating that the pipelines be built with American steel, "like we used to in the old days." Another decree, he said, will streamline "the incredibly cumbersome, long, horrible permitting process and reducing regulatory burdens for domestic manufacturing." A final decree seeks to especially simplify environmental reviews "for high-priority infrastructure projects."
It remains unclear how effectual these orders will actually be, as many of the regulations in question are statutory and cannot be annulled by executive decree. The order on the Dakota Access pipeline directs the Army Corps of Engineers to "review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law." (NPR, WP, Jan. 24)
In remarks to the media, Trump said regulations on the private sector have "gotten out of control," and pledged he would slash them by "75 percent—maybe more." He added: "Now, we're going to have regulation. And it'll be just as strong and just as good and just as protective of the people as we have right now. But you're going to get such great service. There will be no country that's going to be faster, better, more fair, and at the same time protecting the people of the country."
Who he meant by "you" was fairly obvious: Standing beside him during these comments were senior officials from Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical, US Steel, Dell Technologies, Johnson & Johnson, Whirlpool, Under Armour and Tesla. And despite his lip service to "protecting the people," he griped that environmental regulation "makes it impossible to get anything built." Tellingly, he even used the word "monstrous" as a term of praise: "When you want to expand your plant… or when Dell wants to come in and do something monstrous and special, you're going to have your approvals really fas." (US News & World Report)
The promises about using domestic steel in the pipelines, meanwhile, are dubious. TransCanada has already spent over a billion dollars on steel for the Keystone XL project, with pipes stockpiled on the prairie for years across several states in preparation for construction. Half the steel was made outside the United States; the half made domestically was produced by Welspun, an India-based company. (Dakota Free Press)
Trump's executive orders ominously come as Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives quietly laid the groundwork for a privatization of federal public lands, instating a rule change that officially values these lands at zero—meaning their transfer to a "state, local government or tribal entity shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending or increasing outlays." At stake are a collective 640 million acres controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service and National Wildlife Refuge System. Devolving control of these lands to state and local authorities is a growing demand of the political right in Western states, and is explicitly presented as a step toward their ultimate privatization.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, passed by a vote of 234 to 193—despite its frankly nonsensical premise. Apart from their vast wealth in minerals, timber and other resources, these lands generate billions of dollars for the federal government annually from tourism, grazing fees and other activities. As the measure concerns House rules, it is effective immediately, requiring no action by the Senate or presidential signature. (The Guardian, NCRM)
In another ominous sign that restrictions on resource exploitation are about to be radically lifted, he Trump administration has instituted a "gag order" at the Environmental Protection Agency, barring staff from any communication with the media or public. The White House has also instated a "contract freezee" at the EPA, barring the agency from issuing any new task orders or work assignments to its contractors. (AP)
The day before these executive orders were issued, Trump signed a memorandum withdrawing the US from the Tran-Pacific Partnership. The US Trade Representative website, which formerly contained the terms of the pending trade deal, now has on its front page a statement from the new administration promoting an "America First Trade Policy." (Jurist)
Note that Trump's actions here seem to be a perfect inverse of Obama's stance on these questions. Obama (responding to popular protest) halted the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, while aggressively pushing the TPP—which includes investor protection provisions that could be used by the pipeline developers to challenge his very cancelation of the projects. Trump, in contrast, seems to be gearing up for a system of total corporate power behind walls in a closed empire—international mechanisms be damned, along with domestic public oversight.
It is critically important that activists who have long been opposing the TPP and related trade deals not be fooled into thinking that this in any way represents an advance. On the contrary, it is a dangerous retrogression.