Energy & Environment

Democrats, greens blast Trump rollback of major environmental law

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President Trump’s latest environmental rollback was met with strong resistance from a number of Democratic lawmakers and nearly every major environmental group Thursday, with critics lambasting the administration for seeking to unwind a bedrock environmental law.

The proposal from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) targets the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which for 50 years has required detailed environmental reviews of major projects like pipelines, highways and some oil and gas projects.

The sweeping changes allow greater industry involvement in environmental reviews of projects, while diminishing the role climate change plays in those assessments.

Various groups and lawmakers described the proposal as misguided, profoundly irresponsible, unlawful and turning “a blind eye to the climate crisis.”

Supporters of the proposal have hailed it as a modernization of a law blamed for delaying construction projects with unnecessarily lengthy reviews. It’s been widely praised by a broad range of industry groups, from the construction sector to farmers and ranchers to the energy industry. 

But environmentalists fear it will hasten the development of climate change and allow businesses to shortcut examination of the environmental impacts of their projects. Because some projects may no longer be required to undergo an assessment, critics say the changes would allow companies to sidestep public scrutiny of their projects.

“This isn’t just an effort to ‘modernize’ the review process,” said Christy Goldfuss, who was the managing director of the CEQ for the last two years of the Obama administration and now works at the Center for American Progress. “This is about allowing pipelines and dirty fossil fuel projects to bulldoze communities with less public input and less disclosure of potentially harmful public health, environmental and climate change impacts.”

At a press conference Thursday morning where Trump was flanked by Cabinet members and industry leaders, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told the president he expects the proposal to be the “most significant deregulatory proposal you ultimately implement.”

But Democratic lawmakers described the NEPA changes as one of the worst environmental policies from an administration with a long list of rollbacks. 

“This move to gut NEPA is one of the worst decisions made by the worst environmental administration in history,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said in a release. “The Trump administration’s attempt to gut the only law that requires federal agencies to consider the environmental and climate related consequences of federal actions is an affront to all of our communities who deserve a voice in projects that affect their health, safety and economic well-being.”

“To take climate change out of consideration shows willful blindness and gross negligence in the face of the climate crisis, by both making the problem worse and wasting taxpayer dollars when federal infrastructure is inevitably damaged by worsening floods and fires.”

The proposal 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.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) described it as neutering the law that ensures the government accounts for climate change.

“We didn’t need more proof that the fossil fuel industry has hardwired the Trump administration to deliver on its interests, but we got it anyway,” he said.  

There was also heavy criticism over a portion of the proposal that gives companies greater ability to contribute to the environmental assessment of their projects. 

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, equated it to “allowing companies to prepare their own environmental impact statements. We should not be giving self-graded take home exams to polluting companies. And allowing merely 60 days for public comment on these sweeping changes is not nearly enough time to fully consider its broad, far-reaching implications.”

The proposal will be posted to the Federal Register on Friday, after which it will be open for public comment for 60 days. If implemented, it is nearly certain to face legal challenges.

“This is the proposal stage of the rulemaking. Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups will be urging the administration to change course, but if they go forward with an approach like this, we think it’s vulnerable in court,” Sharon Buccino, a senior director in the nature program at Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement to The Hill. 

The proposal, however, was welcome news to many of the industry groups who stood by Trump as he announced the changes, as well as several Republican senators.

“The Trump administration is taking common sense steps to make the National Environmental Policy Act work better for the American people. Too often, important projects are slowed down because of lengthy permitting processes and litigation,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“These updates will reduce red tape so important infrastructure projects get done better, faster, cheaper, and smarter. Road and bridge safety projects that take months to build should not take years to permit.”

Tags Climate change Donald Trump John Barrasso NEPA Sheldon Whitehouse Tom Carper Tom Udall

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