Photo credit: The Navigators via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA
In its haste to jump-start "shovel-ready" stimulus projects, the Obama administration allowed many of the biggest polluters in the nation to sidestep key environmental regulations. The federal government made a stunning 179,000 "categorical exclusions" that allowed corporations -- many with disastrous environmental records -- to use stimulus funding to sponsor projects without submitting them to review under the nation's "most basic form of environmental oversight", a new report from the Center for Public Integrity found.Making matters worse, many of these projects were approved under the auspices of being 'green' or clean energy projects (many more are transportation-related) -- thus helping to comprise the billions of dollars in funding for green projects that sent progressives' hearts aflutter two years ago. This all serves to raise questions about the efficacy of these 'green' stimulus projects, and whether many are in the end actually increasing environmental welfare.
The administration has awarded more than 179,000 "categorical exclusions" to stimulus projects funded by federal agencies, freeing those projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Coal-burning utilities like Westar Energy and Duke Energy, chemical manufacturer DuPont, and ethanol maker Didion Milling are among the firms with histories of serious environmental violations that have won blanket NEPA exemptions.Essentially, the report finds that companies' previous environmental records simply weren't regarded as 'relevant' to the approval process for stimulus funds.
Even a project at BP's maligned refinery in Texas City, Tex. -- owner of the oil industry's worst safety record and site of a deadly 2005 explosion, as well as a benzene leak earlier this year -- secured a waiver for the preliminary phase of a carbon capture and sequestration experiment involving two companies with past compliance problems.
CPI obtained and surveyed internal documents that revealed how the Obama administration ran that process -- and there was a startling lack of concern paid to past compliance to environmental regulations altogether.
The report notes that "some polluters reported their stimulus projects might cause "unknown environmental risks" or could "adversely affect" sensitive resources." Approved! "Others acknowledged they would produce hazardous air pollutants or toxic metals." Approved again! "Still others won stimulus money just weeks after settling major pollution cases." I don't see why not ... "Yet nearly all got exemptions from full environmental analyses, the documents show." If the CPI report is accurate, then it appears that companies were granted a clean slate and undue trust, and little concern was shown for short-term environmental impacts.
The administration, for its part, has responded to CPI's allegations by saying that in the long run, "the exempted stimulus activities will serve to boost energy efficiency and curb pollution." That may be true. But these oversights of environmental regulations are in place for a reason: Companies have a habit of breaking them. And even if BP is building a solar plant, or Duke is building a wind farm, it's still in the public's best interest if they are built safely and without degrading the environment. Which is why it's worrisome that so little attention was paid to the environmental assessment of these projects -- a number of communities and ecosystems may have been put at risk as a result of such heedlessness.