5 Environmental Boondoggles Trump Will Keep Pushing If He Wins

Destructive to people, business, and wildlife, these bad ideas entice the president

By Wendy Becktold

October 26, 2020


Photo by AP Photo/Evan Vucci

This article is part of a Sierra series about the 2020 election.


In the past four years, the Trump administration has worked to undo environmental protections that safeguard our air, land, and water and ram through a long list of destructive industrial projects, all to serve a narrow set of corporate interests. Community groups, tribes, and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club have taken the administration to court countless times to halt these efforts; should Trump be reelected in November, we can expect that the all-around assault on the environment will only intensify. 

Here are five environmental boondoggles that are bad for people, wildlife—and yes, business—that the Trump administration is likely to double down on if the president wins a second term. 

1. The Border Wall

Trump’s infamous campaign promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico was just one piece of a far-reaching xenophobic immigration policy that blames perceived outsiders for societal ills and which resulted in forced separations of children from parents and other human rights abuses. To date, about 300 miles of border wall have been constructed under this administration, with tragic consequences for the communities and natural areas in its path. For example, in August, Sierra reported on a section of the wall designated to cut through areas that the Kumeyaay Nation considers sacred. The construction of the wall has also destroyed countless ecological treasures, such as saguaro cacti—last February, Sierra reported that approximately 30 miles along the southern end of Organ Pipe National Monument had been bulldozed. What’s more, the wall threatens nearly 100 endangered species, including the jaguar and Mexican gray wolf.

“And for what?” John Oliver asks in his Last Week Tonight segment about the border wall. “If this is about stopping drugs or people from entering the country, it’s worth remembering that most of that happens through our ports of entry.” And, Oliver points out, the project is plagued by corruption. Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon was arrested for stealing money from a border wall fundraising campaign, and parts of the new barrier have started to buckle from shoddy construction. For all of these reasons, the wall has become the ultimate symbol of the Trump administration: toxic, xenophobic, corrupt, ineffectual, and wasteful.

For the past four years, the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition have been fighting in court to halt construction. In early October, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that President Trump’s use of emergency powers to divert $3.6 billion in military construction funds for the border wall is illegal and ordered that construction cease immediately. The case is now headed to the Supreme Court.   

2. Pebble Mine in Southeastern Alaska

Plans for this 4,000-acre open-pit gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, were abandoned in 2014 when the EPA issued a damning assessment of its potential environmental impacts. But in 2017, just after Tom Collier, the CEO of the mining operation Pebble Limited Partnership, and then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt breakfasted together, this zombie of a project surged back to life.

A broad coalition of Alaskans, including tribes, environmentalists, and sport fishers, opposes the mine, which would be situated near the headwaters of the largest salmon run in the world. If built, the mine threatens to pollute the surrounding watershed and destroy the habitats of the salmon and other wildlife. Pebble Limited Partnership claims that the project will create 1,000 jobs, but conservation groups counter that fisheries and tourism generate 14,000 jobs in the region and contribute $1.5 billion to the economy each year.

Like other pet projects of the Trump administration, this one is not free from the taint of corruption. In September, executives with Pebble Limited Partnership’s parent company were secretly recorded saying that the mine could expand to be much bigger and operate for much longer than what they have proposed to the Army Corp of Engineers.  

If Trump is reelected, the fate of this vastly unpopular project still remains unclear. The Army Corp of Engineers has yet to issue a permit for the mine and is requiring Pebble Limited Partnership to produce an updated plan on how to avoid adverse impacts. Why the sudden stringency? It might be because even Donald Trump Jr., who reportedly took a fishing trip to Bristol Bay in 2014, has come out against the mine.  

3. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

If Trump is reelected, the administration will undoubtedly continue to try and open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. Last August, officials announced they had finalized a plan to auction lease sales there.  

Fossil fuel extraction in the refuge would irreparably harm its fragile ecosystem and threaten the calving grounds of the caribou, the primary food source for the Gwich'in people, who have inhabited the region for more than 40,000 years. “Even during times of food shortage and starvation, our people never set foot in the calving grounds,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told Sierra in response to the announcement. “And right now they’re trying to turn it into an oilfield.”

The Trump administration touts the move as a win for jobs and energy independence, but the reality is far murkier. In “The End of Oil Is Near,” Antonia Juhasz writes, “The global oil industry is in a tailspin: Demand has cratered, prices have collapsed, and profits are shrinking.”

Rather than confront the situation, US oil and gas companies are in various stages of denial. As Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst at Oil Change International, told Sierra in August, “They have an ideological position that is basically that nothing should be off limits…. Whether it’s viewed as economically viable and realistic from where we stand today and today’s markets, they have been pushing to open up everything.... And the Trump administration has been completely compliant.”  

Financial institutions, though, are starting to think twice about the risky proposition of investing in fossil fuel development in the refuge. In the past year, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase have all made various commitments not to finance drilling in the region. If Trump wins the election, we can expect lease sales to go forward ... but will anyone be buying? 

4. A Nickel and Copper Mine on the Edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness

For over a decade, mining company Twin Metals has been trying to build a nickel and copper mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. In 2016, the Obama administration did not renew expiring leases for the mine and imposed a 20-year moratorium on mining in the area. But in 2019, the Trump administration revived the project by issuing new leases. (Suspiciously, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump had rented a DC mansion from the chief executive officer of the Chilean conglomerate that owns Twin Metals.)

The Boundary Waters Wilderness encompasses 1.1 million acres of interconnected lakes, rivers, wetlands, and forest and is home to the gray wolf, moose, Canada lynx, and other vulnerable species. With 1,200 miles of canoe and kayak routes, it’s also America’s most visited wilderness area. Toxic pollution from the mine could heavily pollute the waterways, harm wildlife, and fragment forest habitats.

As usual, a big allure of the mine is the promise of jobs. But according to a 2016 study, tourism and recreation in the area are also significant economic drivers, accounting for 1,000 jobs and $77 million annually.

Last August, opponents filed a lawsuit charging that the US Forest Service reversed its position on the mine because of undue political influence, so whether or not Trump is reelected, the case will wind up in court. 

In a statement about the lawsuit, Tom Landwehr, executive director of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said, "Time after time, we have seen the Trump administration bend to the will of the rich, elite, and politically connected when it comes to the fate of America's most popular wilderness.” 

5. Logging in the Tongass National Forest

In January 2001, then-president Bill Clinton issued the Roadless Rule, which prohibited road building and commercial logging in 58 million acres of US forests. Included in the directive were 9.2 million acres of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. Now the Forest Service is preparing to exempt these acres from the rule. The Trump administration plans to propose timber sales and road construction projects for the area by the end of this year.

The forests and waters of the Tongass are home to at least 400 species of wildlife, including wolves, northern goshawks, bears, and five species of salmon. It also encompasses the traditional territories of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples.  

Alaskan politicians support opening the Tongass to logging to revive the ailing timber industry, but in Southeast Alaska, 60 percent of the public favors keeping the Roadless Rule in place. The region’s tourism and fishing industries generate $480 million in earnings annually and employ more than 11,000 people, while logging contributes only about 1 percent to the economy. Perhaps most important, the Tongass acts as a significant carbon sink, holding about 650 million tons of carbon (the rough equivalent of half the carbon dioxide emitted by the US in 2017). 

In a statement, Andy Moderow, Alaska director of the Alaska Wilderness League, called the timber industry a relic of the past and the administration’s plans “bad for people, bad for a sustainable economy, and bad for wildlife."

Paid for by the Sierra Club Voter Education Fund, which seeks to raise key environmental issues in the discussions around elections and encourage the public to find out more about candidates’ positions on key environmental issues.