Energy & Environment

Trump faces another challenge to rewrite of bedrock environmental law NEPA

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A coalition of environmental groups on Thursday filed suit against the Trump administration, challenging its rollback of a bedrock environmental law.

The suit, spearheaded by the Natural Resources Defense Council on behalf of eight other groups, is the third to contest the July rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which for 50 years has required thorough environmental reviews before major projects like pipelines and highways could be approved.

“Countless unnecessary environmental harms—including deadly air pollution in residential communities already overburdened by environmental hazards; the individually small but cumulatively devastating climate change impacts of dirty fuels; and the piecemeal destruction of the habitat of species on the brink of extinction—have been identified, disclosed, and often avoided, simply because NEPA requires federal agencies to think before they act,” the groups wrote in their suit.

But the Trump rewrite of the rule “will eliminate environmental reviews for entire classes of projects that may have devastating cumulative or indirect impacts on people and the environment,” they write.

Indeed, the new rule 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.

The rewrite 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.

The White House argues that the new rule is needed to ease bureaucratic delays that can stall infrastructure projects.

The suit follows similar legal grounds as the two filed before it, arguing the Trump administration violated the Administrative Procedures Act in its rollout of the rule while undermining the legal basis of NEPA itself. 

But the challenge also includes multiple plaintiffs in so-called environmental justice communities that are already overburdened by polluting projects, which are oftentimes placed in communities of color and low-income communities.

NEPA allows public input before major projects can proceed and requires the government to weigh alternatives such as ramping up power through solar and wind rather than a pipeline.

The Trump rewrite of the rule allows project leaders to limit alternatives that might be considered and also requires communities to submit more technical feedback, something that could require outside scientific or legal help. 

It also limits consideration of cumulative and indirect effects of a project, which could include not just the environmental damage of building a road, but how the emissions from driving on it could worsen air quality for nearby residents.

“The 2020 rule erects significant barriers to, or eliminates, public participation in many federal decisions that were, before the Rule, subject to a more complete NEPA analysis,” the suit argues, and “will obscure the cumulative impact of multiple polluting projects within environmental justice communities.”

The White House Council on Environmental Quality, which promulgated the rule, would not comment on the litigation. 

NEPA has been a longstanding target of President Trump, dating back to the campaign, and has been the subject of numerous executive orders from the White House as it seeks to fast-track projects.

When rolling out the new rule Trump called NEPA the “single biggest obstacle” to major construction projects.

Tags Climate change Donald Trump National Environmental Policy Act NEPA

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