Energy & Environment

Green groups challenge Trump rollback of bedrock environmental law

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The White House is facing lawsuits from two coalitions of environmental groups challenging its latest rollback to a bedrock environmental law.

The Trump administration finalized changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) just two weeks ago. Environmentalists say the administration’s actions gut a law designed to weigh environmental and community effects before roads, pipelines, oil and gas drilling and other major construction projects are permitted. 

The suits are being led by both the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and Earthjustice, representing more than 35 environmental groups between the suits.

“The Trump administration picked the wrong fight,” Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney serving as co-counsel on the case, said in a release.

“They want to make it easier to silence people’s voices and give polluters a free pass to bulldoze through our neighborhoods. That’s why we’re taking them to court.”

The rewrite of the 50-year-old NEPA removes requirements to consider climate change before proceeding on a project.

Protocols for weighing concerns from nearby communities — often communities of color — would become far more complex.

It also opens the door for more industry involvement in reviewing the environmental effects of their projects or nixing reviews entirely for some projects that receive little federal funding.

President Trump has called NEPA the “single biggest obstacle” to major construction projects.

But environmentalists have a long list of issues with the new rule, starting with how it was developed.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality, which promulgated the rule, held two hearings on the changes — one in Washington and one in Denver. It also issued its rule four months after it was proposed, leaving little time to go through the more than 1.1 million public comments submitted.

Critics say those elements likely violate the Administrative Procedures Act, which requires the government to provide opportunities for the public to weigh in on rules and consider each comment.

“While the federal government has the ability to change policies, rules and regulations, it must follow the law, not cut corners, when it does so,” SELC wrote in its suit.

Though technical, the Administrative Procedures Act arguments against the Trump administration have been highly successful in challenging rules spanning immigration policy to environmental rollbacks.

“We’ve seen the Trump administration lose on those grounds over and over and over again. You have to follow the law to change the law and they have just not learned how to do that,” said Kym Hunter, the lawyer handling SELC’s case, calling the violations “the most straightforward way the rule is problematic.”

The other arguments center around policy changes in the rule itself, which environmentalists argue are antithetical to the purpose of NEPA.

Often called the “magna carta” of environmental laws, NEPA was structured to require a thorough environmental review of each project as well as considering a wide array of alternatives before embarking on a big project. Many consider it a civil rights law because of its emphasis on soliciting community feedback.

But the Trump rewrite allows for a much narrower view of environmental impacts of a project — say the effect of building a road but not emissions from the cars that would use it or how runoff might leach into a nearby wetland. 

“Moving ahead with a project and buying the right of way before finishing NEPA review is inconsistent with using the law to inform decisions, not justify them later,” Hunter told The Hill. 

“Putting a project applicant in change of the process and defining the scope of alternatives that would be studied is antithetical to … a statute that forces agencies to really think about what they’re doing and how,” she continued.

The changes to public comments — which would now require detailed, technical analysis that might be beyond the reach of many communities — conflicts with the “need to inform the public and have robust conversation and participation in government decisionmaking,” she said.

The Council on Environmental Quality said it did not comment on litigation.

The Trump administration has argued the changes are necessarily to “modernize” a law that can delay projects with environmental reviews that can last as long as four years.

Trump announced the finalization of the rule in Atlanta, saying it would help further expand the highway system in a city plagued by traffic.

“Today’s action is part of my administration’s fierce commitment to slashing the web of needless bureaucracy that is holding back our citizens. I’ve been wanting to do this from day one,” he said.

–This report was updated at 12:23 p.m.

Tags Construction Donald Trump Drilling Environmentalism National Environmental Policy Act NEPA
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