Energy & Environment

Major drilling projects among dozens fast-tracked after Trump order

Controversial oil drilling projects in Alaska’s pristine reserves are among those that benefited from a June order from President Trump waiving environmental reviews to speed construction — a move he said would aid the economy in the face of the pandemic.

Oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPRA) are just a few of the 21 fossil fuel and mining projects the Interior Department has forwarded with reduced environmental scrutiny due to the June order.

A number of highway expansion projects are also on the July 15 list given to the White House, an outline of more than 70 projects expedited by Interior that was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. 

Brett Hartl, the group’s government affairs director, argued that the sped-up reviews likely wouldn’t be sufficient to determine the projects’ environmental impacts. 

“If they were concerned with doing a thorough environmental review, they wouldn’t be telling the agencies to expedite the approvals,” he said. “You can’t rush to the finish line and do a thorough review at the same time.”

Interior spokesperson Conner Swanson declined to answer questions from The Hill, but said in a statement that projects have been “needlessly paralyzed by federal red tape.”

“The Trump Administration has taken significant steps to improve the federal government’s decision-making process, while also ensuring that the environmental consequences of proposed projects are thoughtfully analyzed,” he said. 

The June 4 order from Trump waived requirements under a suite of environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires thorough environmental review of major projects, as well as the Endangered Species Act.

It expedited the permitting of construction and energy projects overseen by several federal agencies, using emergency authorities to skirt the regulations with little public notice.

“From the beginning of my administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays,” Trump wrote in the order. “The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis.”

The Center for Biological Diversity’s list is not exhaustive. A number of agencies were given emergency authorities under the order beyond Interior. The details were released only after the group filed a lawsuit.

“Once again you apparently have to sue to be told what your government is doing with your public lands resources, which is disappointing to say the least,” Nada Culver, a lawyer with Audubon Society, told The Hill. “If this is such a wonderful thing for all of us, why can’t we know what it is?”

But the list offers a preview of the types of projects being advanced through the order and the legal complications they may face.

Other projects listed in the documents include the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s Southgate expansion in Virginia and North Carolina, an industrial road leading to the Ambler Mining district in Alaska and the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export terminal in Oregon. 

Hartl said he was particularly concerned about the fossil fuel and mining projects because of the environmental impacts their construction could have and the possibility of environmental harm after their completion. 

“There’s significant impacts during the construction, you’ve got to build the pipeline from wherever you’re going to wherever you’re shipping it, many of these ports involve significant dredging and coastal change to make them accessible … and then obviously you’ve got long-term climate impacts plus the impacts of air pollution from operation,” he said.  

The list also includes several highway expansion projects — one of the key examples cited by Trump when in July he announced a different regulation to rollback NEPA in Atlanta, saying it would help ease congestion. An expansion of the express lane for Interstate 285, one of the major thoroughfares in the area, is included on the list.

The document also states that Interior is working with the White House to create new “categorical exclusions” from “further NEPA review,” meaning that entire categories of projects would have their review process weakened further. 

Though more than 70 projects are listed, 10 are said to be “completed.”

“There’s a few in that list that are already complete and I don’t know why they put them in, like they were already done,” Hartl said. “I think they’re trying to take credit.”

Legal experts raised issue with the order itself in June, calling it a misuse of the president’s emergency authority that undermine the environmental statutes themselves. But they say its use to aid these projects will also face legal scrutiny and could undermine construction of the projects the administration hopes to fast-track. 

Culver, a NEPA expert, noted that the administration’s weak environmental analysis has cost them in the courtroom several times.

“You can say it’s all streamlining and moving forward, but what we’re seeing is this streamlining consistently is violating various legal requirements, and they are sent back to the drawing board, and I don’t see how the executive order will change the course of this,” she told The Hill. 

That could replay itself in Alaska with ANWR and NPRA where environmentalists have complained the government moved ahead with drilling plans without thorough environmental review. It’s not clear if the executive order was a factor in what critics see as deficiencies in the analysis.

“It’s hard to tell because they were already on a path to extremely inadequate environmental analysis,” Culver said, saying Interior moved forward “without addressing these really obvious legal flaws.”

Over the past several months the administration has taken a number of efforts to roll back what they see as regulatory burdens on the construction industry. 

Trump’s changes to NEPA in July have already been challenged in court, including as recently as last week in a suit from 21 states. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra called it a “rule that is, at its heart, the gutting” of America’s bedrock environmental law.

And in May, Trump signed a similar executive order, directing agencies to look for any deregulatory action that could aid the economy, another move critics worried would be a gut punch to environmental laws.

Even with a bevy of actions, Culver said environmentalists are likely to prevail in court. 

“My experience working with NEPA for a long time is that delays generally come when you try to not comply with [regulations], not when you actually do a good job,” she said. “The delays come when you try to cut corners, whether you call it ‘streamlining’ or you call it ‘I don’t feel like doing environmental analysis today.’ ”

Tags Alaska Climate change Donald Trump Endangered Species Act NEPA Xavier Becerra

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