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House GOP seeks to cement Trump rollback of bedrock environmental law

House GOP seeks to cement Trump rollback of bedrock environmental law
© Greg Nash

House Republicans are seeking to advance a bill that would legislatively cement many of President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE’s controversial changes to a bedrock environmental law while adding additional provisions that would make it tougher to sue over major construction projects. 

The bill follows the White House’s July rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which for 50 years has required the government to weigh environmental and community concerns before approving pipelines, highways, drilling permits or any major action on federal lands. 

While that rollback has spurred suits from a number of environmental groups and states, lawmakers are doubling down with a similar effort. 

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“I applaud the administration’s monumental steps to produce a new final NEPA rule that’s going to have some advantages, but it needs to be codified,” said Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopRepublicans in campaign mode for top spots on House environmental committees Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it MORE (R-Utah), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. 

“Congress got it wrong when they wrote it and has refused to change it, and now's the time for Congress to get it right,” he added later.

Trump’s NEPA rollback is considered sweeping in its own right.

The rewrite removes requirements to consider climate change before proceeding on a project, and 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 projects or nixing reviews entirely for some projects that receive little federal funding. Trump has repeatedly called NEPA the “single biggest obstacle” to major construction projects.

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The new Republican bill, the Builder Act, includes many identical or similar provisions, capping environmental reviews to one or two years and limiting what sorts of alternatives could be considered before proceeding with a highway or pipeline.

Rep. Garret GravesGarret Neal GravesNew Interior order undermines conservation bill Trump campaigned on, critics say OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden expected to issue swift reversals on climate | Senate proposes spending increase at environmental agencies | Court halts permits for contentious Mountain Valley Pipeline Trump administration submits list of conservation projects after the deadline MORE (R-La.), the sponsor of the legislation, said codifying Trump's NEPA regulation would stop the “pendulum swinging back and forth between administrations.” 

But his bill targets an area where environmentalists have had much success, limiting who can sue over projects and barring those who did not participate during the public comment period required under NEPA.

“It tightens up some of the judicial reviews to ensure stakeholders actually engage in the NEPA process and don't try and relitigate this entire NEPA process through the courts,” Graves said.

Trump’s new NEPA regulation has been widely criticized by environmental groups because of the barriers it put in place for those seeking to comment as major infrastructure projects are proposed.

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Those comments will now have to be more technical in nature, something that could require the often poor, often majority-minority communities where many projects are built to hire lawyers or environmental scientists. 

“It requires comments to be really specific, to site page numbers and be really technical in ways that can be really challenging for communities. They may need to hire people to write their letters, if they can afford to do that,” Kym Hunter, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said when Trump’s NEPA changes were first rolled out.

Graves said he believed his measure limiting suits would still encourage people to participate at the least burdensome stage of the process.

“This actually requires participation in the process. This is a really important fix because you oftentimes can actually resolve issues through the NEPA process. There's much flexibility in looking at mitigation or looking at alternatives, and so what that does is it prevents, in many cases, items from ever even going before the courts,” he said, something that will prevent additional delays and expenses.

The Republican bill has almost no chance of advancing in the Democratic-led House, where this week lawmakers are instead expected to advance legislation that would boost research and development funding for most types of energy.

Graves argued his bill would help Democrats advance their agenda by removing barriers to building the infrastructure needed to expand renewable energy.