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Trump's Infrastructure Plan Doesn't "Streamline" the Permit Process -- It Steamrolls It

Friday, February 09, 2018 By Janine Jackson, FAIR | Interview
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Janine Jackson: Donald Trump's State of the Union speech called for a $1.5 trillion plan to rebuild what he called "the country's crumbling infrastructure." For many, investment in infrastructure evokes an image of un- and underemployed people going to work, fixing the country's roads and bridges. A draft of the Trump White House's plans leaked to media is more about "streamlining" the federal permit process for infrastructure projects, and seeking public/private partnerships. So what questions would a critical media be asking about now?

Raul Garcia is senior legislative council at Earthjustice. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Raul Garcia.

Raul Garcia: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

What can you say about what we know about the ideas and the priorities reflected in the Trump administration's infrastructure plan? What does it look like they're set to do?

It really looks like a fraud under the guise of an infrastructure plan, more so than an infrastructure plan itself. Typical of this White House, we've seen very little detail about what the plan actually calls for, except for the things that you mentioned. Just last night, we heard of the idea of $1.5 trillion in investment. But I want to dissect that a little bit, because although it sounds very good, sort of a hefty sum at $1.5 trillion, we know, through leaks and other sources, that he's actually only trying to put down about $200 billion in terms of infrastructure.

And so where does the $1.3 trillion there remaining come from? That's the big question, and that's the question that the White House somehow refuses to answer. We have an idea where it's going to come from, because he says, well, we're going to leverage it, and we're going to create more money. And bottom line is that you can't just make up money. But the $1.3 trillion gap here that he will not fill will have to come from local and state governments. And that means that you're going to have to have local and state governments splitting that bigger bill for projects that they already don't have enough funds to build. They don't have enough money to do the things that they already have planned. How do you plan to leverage whatever you give them, for them to just magically appear with $1.3 trillion? It doesn't make sense.

The other side of this is the environmental component. Call it environmental, but it's really much more than that. It's about people's health and safety; it's also about giving communities a voice in the process of building this infrastructure. And he keeps calling this "streamlining the process," and he's not streamlining the process, he's really just steamrolling it, or bulldozing it, if you will, because he's just getting rid of it almost entirely. All core bedrock environmental laws, we can go through the list: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act…. All of these laws are built to protect our environment and our health and safety, and yet he's gutting them, one by one.

And that's the real problem, because these laws also provide a process through which we can build better infrastructure. So these are the laws that say: Well, you have to conduct a study about what you're about to do. And what are going to be the impacts? Who are you going to hurt? Who are you going to benefit? Is this the best way to do this? All of that, he just wants to ignore. He just wants to bust out the rubber stamp with his buddies, and give them their contracts so that they can make a profit. And that's a problem, because that's going to happen at the expense of the health and safety of our communities, at the expense of their voice in this process.

And then we're going to have infrastructure that's actually going to be more likely to crumble, because it actually wasn't planned correctly. So when the next hurricane hits, or when the next forest fire hits, we're not prepared for it. Again, there's no actual investment; and all we're seeing is just an excuse to gut environmental protections.

I feel like with media, there's kind of a lazy frame of, first of all, environmental concerns being contrasted with human concerns, when of course, the environment is people. But also there's this idea of bureaucratic red tape, and you want to do something. And so somebody's going to say, "we don't need all these rules and regulations, we're just going to do stuff." It requires paying attention to, when we talk about process, when we talk about what projects need to go through to be green-lighted, we're really talking about human beings.

Exactly. That's really what it boils down to. We've seen this from President Trump before, right? He goes on a podium, and he grabs all of these binders, and he grabs the binders and he just throws them on the floor. And he says, we're going to cut red tape, folks. The problem is that no one's actually asking the question, "Well, what is in those binders that he threw on the floor? What did he discard?" I can tell you that, among other things, those binders are filled with public comments: What do mothers have to say about this? What do workers have to say about this? What do labor unions, what do local communities, scientists…? All of their input was just thrown to the ground and discarded all at once. If we want to build infrastructure that addresses public needs, then I would argue that you would actually need public input to see what those needs are before you start building that infrastructure. And that's the very thing that he's cutting out with these attacks.

That's the big picture that I think is actually most important. But I wanted to ask you about one kind of detail, which is that I understand that one piece of this is that companies would be able to pay for their own environmental reviews?

Yeah, exactly. I mean, isn't that just the biggest conflict of interest you can see? It's just amazing what they're thinking of, right? But, yeah, it's essentially saying the entity that's going to be the check on the project, sort of making sure that it's doing it right, is the same company that's bound to profit from this project.

Right. I'm thinking about these headlines that I'm seeing about Puerto Rico. About Puerto Rico privatizing their electrical grid: "Puerto Rico Moves to Privatize Troubled Power Company." "Puerto Rico Is Going to Privatize Their Hobbled Electric Power Company." I understand that their system was troubled, but the language in those headlines seems to be seeing "privatized" as a synonym for "fix." Bringing in the private sector, for many people, is still seen as improving a situation. And I guess I have to say that I blame corporate media for failing to unpack that language and what that actually means. And so I just wonder, what would you look for from reporters in translating for the public what this podium speech might actually mean?

I think that a lot of reporters are very concerned about what is happening, but they don't necessarily always report as to why it's happening, or what the motivations behind the move are, or what the possible motivations behind the move are. Because you bring up privatizing Puerto Rico's electric company; obviously, there needs to be reforms in order to fix what is happening there, because it wasn't well run.

But I'm not sure that privatization is the answer, and so by equating it to a solution to a problem, that only paints one side of it. So, the question is, well, why privatize it, who has a stake in here, who's going to make a profit? And who's not? And who's going to be left behind? All of those questions, I think, are things that need to be asked, that the news media should report on and offer, I think, a complete picture that way.

One idea is to say, who stands to profit from this? We work a lot with local communities, in which they say, "Could you help us lift our voice in this process?" And it is very hard to compete with corporate interests in Washington, DC. A big project, for example, is Keystone XL pipeline, or the Dakota access pipeline. And we heard about the permits, and we heard about all this stuff -- and then we heard very little, actually, about what the actual impacts were going to be to the Native American communities involved, or to the ranchers involved, or all of that.

The news media moved on, but those folks still have to live with the consequences of what is happening, and we just saw Keystone XL leak tons of oil and damage those lands. I think that coverage needs to continue, and the question of the motivation behind a specific move needs to be put front and center.

I was just going to ask you -- because it seems like a moment for it. I think a lot of folks thought that Donald Trump's talk about a wall between the US and Mexico was almost a joke, it seemed so ludicrous -- so I was going to ask you a question, because that is, after all, infrastructure, and is after all what Trump is talking about as part of his infrastructure plan, but the only question I could come up with is, why is this still happening? Why are we still talking about this?

Well, it's happening for a variety of reasons, but I can give you a very strong reason. Right now, under the REAL ID Act of 2005, the secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to waive any law he or she wants to waive, and that includes the law that he wants to undermine in his infrastructure package.

So he already has the authority to do away with these laws on the border or border barriers. What he wants now is to take that same sort of "free pass" over the law, and apply it all over the country, for all kinds of infrastructure. And these are the same laws; again, we can go through the list -- Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act -- all of these things would have been checks on this administration's power to do or not do something on the border. And the REAL ID Act, they managed to do away with those, just for the very specific notion of building barriers, some of them more burdensome than others.

And he's seeing how that's working for him, right, with that campaign pledge. And he says, wow, these protections that people had were really getting in the way, now I can do whatever I want on the wall. And that's largely what he's doing. But now he wants to apply this to the rest of the country -- and that's a problem.

But speaking about the border wall itself…. So, now we don't have those protections. So whatever action happens, if he gets the money -- that's the big question, whether he gets the money to build this wall -- if he gets the money, in that case, we have very little recourse to stop it in the courts, because he can waive any law he wants.

Say any given citizen, a rancher that owns land on the border, decides to sue, because they took away land for not a fair price, or whatever it may be. Well, now he can't do that, because if he sues, the president can just go back and waive the law, and then say, well, you have no standing in court. So that leaves the public completely out of it. And these are the kinds of things that now he's looking to do everywhere.

If I could just ask you, finally, part of what hurts me so much about this is the way that it's trading on people's understanding of investment and infrastructure as kind of a Works Progress Administration, as kind of a jobs program; what are some of the elements of what a just infrastructure plan, what a fair infrastructure, an environmentally mindful and community-mindful infrastructure plan might look like?

One, I think that they would keep all of the protections that are out there for the environment and for our communities. Because this process actually makes infrastructure better. It serves our communities better, and it actually lends itself to be stronger than it would be without.

I think other issues about infrastructure that were just completely absent from the president's plan, and from his State of the Union speech, are things like, well, how about we invest some of these federal dollars into cleaning up our drinking water system? We all saw what happened in Flint, Michigan, and that is happening in cities all over the country, and that continues to happen. So the media moved on, but that's still very much happening, and so we need to devote actual investment into fixing those situations.

It also means putting resources into the agencies who are going to be carrying on a lot of these projects. It's not just the Department of Transportation, but it's also the Fish and Wildlife Service, to see where endangered species are located, and see if they would be impacted. It's also putting money into the Environmental Protection Agency, to make sure that it can carry out the duties that, by statute, it has to carry out.

And all of those things are just some of the ideas that we can do with infrastructure in a good way, right? When we talk about public transit, and when we talk about turning to renewable energy sources, all of that is great infrastructure, when it's accompanied with real investment, which this plan does not.

Why doesn't this plan have it? The motivations are clearly not there. Right? We're not actually seeing investment; we're certainly not seeing it in the fields where we need it. But more so than that, he's actually using this as an excuse to take away protections. Overall, the only people who stand to benefit are not people who care about actual infrastructure development. The people who benefit are just going to be those folks that are well-positioned within this administration. So that means the oil and gas industry, the coal industry, so on and so forth.

But we can't let this happen. This has to be stopped, and one of the ways to do that is that the Democrats have come up with alternatives. We saw Senator Schumer's infrastructure plan that he released last January, right? So that tells you that infrastructure is a priority for Democrats, when done correctly.

But this president decides to use only 30 seconds of his State of the Union speech on infrastructure, and then dismisses it; just throwing taglines with absolutely no detail, and throwing numbers around like he's actually going to accomplish something.  And he's just not going to, it's just not possible and it's not feasible, and that's something that needs to be addressed.

We've been speaking with Raul Garcia, senior legislative council at Earthjustice. You can find their work online at Earthjustice.org. Raul Garcia, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

No problem; thank you so much for having me.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/host of FAIR's syndicated radio show "CounterSpin." She contributes frequently to FAIR's newsletter Extra!, and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC's "Nightline" and "CNN Headline News," among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW's Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an MA in sociology from the New School for Social Research.