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White House pushed to release documents on projects expedited due to coronavirus

White House pushed to release documents on projects expedited due to coronavirus
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More than 50 Democratic lawmakers are asking the Trump administration to turn over documents after the White House directed agencies to create a shortlist of construction projects that could be fast tracked to boost the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A June executive order from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE expedites the permitting of construction projects and energy projects overseen by several federal agencies, using emergency authorities to skirt environmental regulations with little public notice.

Agencies had 30 days to report which projects will be expedited under the order, but there was no requirement for that list to be publicized.

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“By keeping these reports from the public, this administration is concealing its own response to the economic crisis brought on by the COVID pandemic. If the administration is confident that this Executive Order can legally and legitimately provide economic relief, it should disclose which projects and decisions it is advancing under the auspices of the order,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the White House spearheaded by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Ranking Member Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds Overnight Energy: Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' | GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards | United Nations agency says greenhouse gas emissions accumulating despite lockdown decline GSA transition delay 'poses serious risk' to Native Americans, Udall says MORE (D-Del.), House Transportation Committee Chair Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioDemocrats ask GAO to study COVID-19 air travel risks Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? On the Trail: Five House results illustrate a politically divided America MORE (D-Ore.), and House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-A.Z.) 

The order would slash the requirements in a number of landmark environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires rigorous environmental review before building new infrastructure like highways or pipelines.

But the lawmakers warn the White House is subject to “a myriad of federal laws that require transparency and public accountability” that it cannot legally sidestep.

“These reports contain information on how billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent on projects impacting the health and safety of their communities. How these taxpayer dollars are spent should be subject to taxpayer scrutiny,” the wrote.

The June order from Trump relies on emergency authorities to push forward projects he has long promised to advance, such as the Keystone Pipeline and other big oil and gas projects. 

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"The Trump administration is committed to streamlined, efficient permitting processes that will improve our nation’s infrastructure while ensuring environmental protection. Our focus is on reducing unnecessary regulatory burdens that can delay much-needed projects and hold back the American economy," the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) said in a statement to The Hill. 

 

Many environmental groups questioned the legality of the order when it was first announced.

NEPA has an emergency provision that allows speedy construction of projects, but the example given by the CEQ suggests it should be used to respond to natural disasters like flooding.

Nada Culver, senior policy counsel with the National Audubon Society, said the order mirrors similar legal maneuvers used by the Trump administration to push ahead with border wall construction.

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“They’re trying to use the authority to say ‘We have an emergency and it will last until this administration feels like it, and that emergency is now defined so broadly as an economic issue that it will never end,’” she told The Hill at the time. 

“‘We’ll keep delaying any NEPA requirements and you’ll have to guess what we're approving and what we're doing.’”

Updated at 6:14 p.m.