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White House effort to roll back bedrock environmental law spurs strong opposition

White House effort to roll back bedrock environmental law spurs strong opposition
© Greg Nash

The White House heard an outpouring of opposition to its plans to roll back a landmark environmental law that requires the government to weigh the environmental impacts of pipelines, highways, oil development and a host of other projects.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in January proposed a massive rewriting of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) eliminating the requirement that the government consider climate change when evaluating projects and in some cases even allowing companies to assess the impacts of their own projects. 

At a hearing Tuesday, the second of just two that accepted public comment, speakers accused the Trump administration of gutting the law to fast-track polluting projects for industry at the expense of human health.

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“When the NEPA process is cut short or weakened, ill-conceived projects advance that can have devastating public health and environmental consequences for all Americans,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) at the hearings. The representative highlighted a consequence of the rollback that will be worse for low income communities, areas where polluting industries often house their projects.

The hearing was held in a boisterous auditorium at the Department of the Interior, with people traveling from as far away as California, Texas and Florida to oppose the rule, including a number of people from towns that are already home to polluting industries. 

“I am the citizen that is here not as anti-mining, anti-drilling, anti-livestock, or anti-infrastructure, but I care about what they are trying to do,” said Liz Cramp, a Virginia resident. “And I am also the citizen that is not really concerned that these and other profit-hungry industries are having to spend time and money to insure that America’s environment and Americans’ health are protected.”

The environmental review required under NEPA is a broad one, a precaution that looks at how oil and gas drilling, construction projects and other infrastructure impact not just the air, water and soil but the people and wildlife that live nearby.

However, supporters of the proposal have pegged the rollback as a modernization of the law, arguing projects have been unnecessarily slowed by environmental assessments that take years and might number 1,000 pages.

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“Since the NEPA statute was enacted over 50 years ago, the environmental review and permitting process has become much more complex and time consuming, and can result in delays of critical infrastructure projects for communities,” said CEQ Chairwoman Mary Neumayr, saying the law has spurred extensive litigation that has made implementation costly and unpredictable.

“We support the fundamental goals of NEPA: considering the significant environmental impacts of projects. However, the Federal decision-making process is getting progressively longer. Delays are affecting economic growth, public safety, welfare, national security, and the environment,” said Chad Whiteman with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In addition, industry groups have focused their efforts on framing the debate over the rollback on its forseen advantages, like promoting infrastructure, roads and high speed internet.

But critics have stressed the benefits to the oil and gas industry and other polluting industries, and Grijalva last week asked CEQ to turn over communications with a number of oil companies, citing “concerns with the development of CEQ’s proposed rule.”

Environmentalists and others opposed to the changes are particularly averse to cutting consideration of the “cumulative” effects of new projects, an aspect of the law widely believed to be used to determine how a project might contribute to climate change.

“We simply cannot afford to have ill-informed decisionmaking, which is exactly what this would do. Instead of looking before you leap, this is like leaping before you look," said Collin O’Mara, head of the National Wildlife Federation.

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities | Montana asks court to throw out major public lands decisions after ousting BLM director | It's unknown if fee reductions given to oil producers prevented shutdowns Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities Energy innovation bill can deliver jobs and climate progress MORE (D-Del.) told reporters after his testimony that he was opposed to measures in the proposal that would allow businesses to conduct their own environmental assessments of their projects.

“It's a little bit like a take-home, self-graded exam,” he said. "If we had that option in school, I would have done a lot better. I would have passed every time. I would have made the dean's list every time.”

Having companies do their own environmental assessments would also cut communities out of the process, as NEPA guarantees the public’s right to comment on development.

“NEPA is at the core of our democracy,” said Sharon Buccino with the Natural Resources Defense Council, with the law giving people a chance to weigh in on projects and offer alternatives. “NEPA is the people's environmental law.”

Some opposed to the Trump administration acknowledged the law should be streamlined to address some business leaders’ concerns, but characterized the proposal as gutting the law rather than tweaking its flaws. Carper has led some efforts to do so.

But business groups that commented in favor of the Trump administration’s changes said NEPA had morphed, becoming instead a way for the government to protect itself from lawsuits.

“NEPA should be driven by actual impact, not fear of litigation,” said Chase Adams with the American Sheep Industry Association.

The American Sheep Industry Association must comply with NEPA in order for livestock to graze on public lands.