Energy & Environment

White House aims to roll back bedrock environmental law to speed development

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The White House on Thursday issued sweeping changes to one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws, allowing greater industry involvement in environmental reviews of projects and diminishing the role climate change plays in those assessments.

The changes target the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires agencies to evaluate how pipelines, highways and some oil and gas development affects the environment and nearby communities.

The law has been a repeated target of President Trump, who has vowed to speed the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure and eliminate barriers to construction projects.

Flanked by industry leaders at Thursday morning press conference, Trump described the measure as a complete overhaul.

“From Day One, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority. And we want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways bigger, better, faster, and we want to build them at less cost,” he said.

The changes, which will be posted to the Federal Register on Friday, would limit the law’s scope, excluding some projects from undergoing NEPA review, like those that receive little federal funding. It also opens the door for more industry involvement in reviewing the environmental impacts of their projects.

While NEPA serves a noble purpose, it has “paralyzed commonsense decisionmaking for a generation,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said on a call to present the proposal, listing a wide range of projects that have been delayed by environmental analyses.

“This is a really, really big proposal. It affects virtually every big decision made by the federal government that affects the environment, and I think it will be the most significant deregulatory proposal you ultimately implement,” Bernhardt told Trump.

The proposal from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) would no longer require consideration of the “cumulative” effects of new projects. Courts have largely interpreted that as studying how a project might contribute to climate change, say by contributing heat-trapping greenhouse gases, or how it might be influenced by effects of climate change like extreme weather.

Under the changes proposed by the Trump administration, officials would need to consider effects of a project that are “reasonably foreseeable” and show “a reasonably close causal relationship.”

Environmentalists say those changes would allow the government to look the other way when projects contribute considerable amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Over past decades, courts have said this means not only what’s happening on the postage stamp-sized area around the pipeline or the bridge, but the cumulative impacts on the environmental health and water and communities surrounding the project. That’s what they’re going to try and restrict,” said Christy Goldfuss, who was the managing director of the CEQ for the last two years of the Obama administration.

But ignoring climate change could also have disastrous implications for the projects themselves.

“This is a huge problem when you’re building for the future and building major infrastructure. If you’re not looking at where sea level rise going to be, where our historical flooding habits are changing, what is history of wildfire in this region, then you’re just building to the trends of 50 years ago, and we know the environment is changing so rapidly,” Goldfuss, who is now senior vice president of energy and environment at the Center for American Progress, said.

“We have tools to estimate what the future will look like as a result of climate change and that information should be available to decisionmakers when they spend taxpayer dollars,” she added.

The latest guidance faces a 60-day comment period before it can be finalized.

It follows a June guidance from the council that reversed an Obama-era policy, directing agencies to no longer consider environmental factors that are “remote or speculative,” widely interpreted to mean climate change.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, CEQ Chairwoman Mary Neumayr said the new changes would push agencies to complete environmental impact statements in two years, a process that now averages about 4 1/2.

The process would be streamlined in part by requiring project leaders to coordinate with one agency, rather than undergo multiple NEPA reviews with each agency with jurisdiction over the project.

Neumayr also said the proposal would allow “applicants and contractors to assume a greater role in preparing environmental impact statements under the supervision of an agency.”

How extensive that role would be was not clear, but the possibility of greater industry influence would be sure to spark concerns for environmental groups.

“The proposal would effectively give project sponsors in the NEPA process the ability to write their own reviews, stacking the deck in the review process for those who want to slash, burn, and pollute communities’ air and water for the sake of profit. Cementing conflicts-of-interest into federal regulation puts our health at risk,” Stephen Schima, a senior legislative counsel leading NEPA advocacy work for Earthjustice, wrote in a statement.

He was also concerned about limiting what future projects would require a NEPA review, something Schima said would allow businesses to proceed without consulting nearby communities.

“This would severely curtail review of environmental impacts and provide the public with little to no voice in the decisions affecting their communities,” he said.

The White House proposal earned swift condemnation from some members of Congress, who argued it was another example to add to a long list of Trump-era rollbacks that will be heavily challenged in court.

“The Trump administration’s NEPA rule revisions, like its revisions to every other environmental law it touches, are about giving polluters more political power and protecting them from public scrutiny. These changes mean polluting corporations will have an easier time doing whatever they want, wherever they want, with even less consideration for climate change or local concerns than they’ve shown so far. More people will get sick from pollution, more money will have to be spent rebuilding ill-conceived projects, and more preventable climate impacts will go unaddressed,” House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement.

“Polluting industries need more public oversight, not less.”

The changes were welcomed by a host of construction and fossil fuel organizations, ranging from builders to railroad and oil companies that have long pushed for changes in the law that could speed their work.

“The plan to reform the National Environmental Policy Act is the most recent example of the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to reduce harmful regulations that hurt small businesses and impede economic growth. Updating NEPA will streamline the federal permitting process and allow badly needed transportation and infrastructure projects to move forward,” Greg Ugalde, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, said in a statement.

–Updated at 12:37 p.m.

Tags Climate change Deregulation Donald Trump National Environmental Policy Act NEPA
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