The Trump administration issued a proposal Jan. 9 to speed environmental permitting for major projects such as roads, bridges, and pipelines, seeking the most significant changes to the National Environmental Policy Act in more than four decades.
Key among the changes proposed by the White House Council on Environmental Quality are provisions that would require a project’s environmental effects to be “reasonably foreseeable” and have a “reasonably close causal relationship” to the project, CEQ chairman Mary Neumayr said in a Jan. 9 press call. The action drew praise from congressional Republicans and industry groups and criticism from Democrats and environmentalists.
A project’s cumulative environmental effects would no longer have to be considered, Neumayr said.
To many observers, that language suggests that federal agencies will no longer have to take a project’s effects on climate change into account. But Neumayr also said the proposal would not exclude consideration of greenhouse gases.
A senior administration official said Jan. 9 that the public is invited to comment on whether CEQ’s June 2019 guidance on greenhouse gases should be codified in the regulations.
That guidance said federal agencies will be allowed to minimize climate change when they analyze the environmental impacts of federal decisions such as oil and gas leasing. Agencies would have to project a federal project’s greenhouse gas emissions only when they are “substantial enough to warrant quantification, and when it is practicable” to do so.
Slashing Time for Environmental Impact Assessment
The National Environmental Policy Act—the nation’s first comprehensive environmental law—was signed into law on Jan. 1, 1970, by President Richard Nixon. It requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of proposals for major federal actions and make the information public before decisions are made.
The Jan. 9 proposal would set a presumptive two-year time limit for environmental impact statements, and a one-year limit for the less rigorous environmental assessments under NEPA, Neumayr said. Under the current system, applicants must wait an average of 4 1/2 years for the entire NEPA process to be completed, she said.
CEQ’s proposed rule also would give direction about whether NEPA applies to a given action, Neumayr said. Exempting major projects from NEPA’s strictures would let them move ahead faster, but environmentalists fear such exemptions could forgo proper scrutiny of their impacts on the air, land, water, or wildlife.
Other changes would include mandatory joint schedules, a single record of decision, and a single impact statement when multiple agencies are involved, according to Neumayr.
The proposal would also let project applicants prepare their own impact statements under the supervision of an agency, Neumayr said.
Faster, More Effective Reviews
Taken together, the changes “will hit a home run in delivering better results for the American people by cutting red tape that has paralyzed common sense decision making for a generation,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said on the press call.
Some Interior NEPA documents are so long that, when asked if Interior senior managers had even read them, “they emphatically said no,” Bernhardt said.
President Donald Trump has sought to pare back regulations that he claims impede economic growth. On Jan. 1, the 50th anniversary of NEPA’s enactment, Trump said in a statement that the environmental review process “has become increasingly complex and difficult to navigate.”
Trump told reporters Jan. 9 that many projects are “tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process.”
“America is a nation of builders,” Trump said. But he said that under the current rules, it takes too long to get a permit, which he said represents “big government at its absolute worst.”
The president said he will keep pushing for regulatory overhauls until “gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again.”
But environmentalists have strenuously opposed any changes to NEPA, saying the White House’s emphasis on speed will forsake crucial environmental protections. Opponents also say NEPA already gives the federal government many tools to ensure that a project’s environmental impacts can be assessed quickly and efficiently.
60-Day Comment Period
Once the proposal is published, the public will have 60 days to comment. CEQ will then sift through the comments and issue a final rule.
The final rule typically does not change significantly from the proposed version, but legal challenges to CEQ’s regulation are almost certain to follow.
Neumayr said CEQ will hold two public hearings on the proposed rule in Denver and Washington, D.C.
NEPA’s implementing regulations have been essentially unchanged since they were established in 1978.
Opponents Fire Back
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) blasted the plan in a Jan. 9 press briefing.
“This means that more polluters will be right there, next to the water supply, of our children,” Pelosi said. “That’s a public health issue. Their denial of climate—they are going to not use the climate issue as anything to do with environmental decision making. The public should know this.”
Christy Goldfuss, who headed CEQ under President Barack Obama and is now senior vice president of energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, rejected the argument that NEPA is the cause of project delays.
“The size of these projects are such that they take enormous amounts of investment, they have complicated funding scenarios, they take local, state, and federal-level permitting,” Goldfuss said. “Yes, we need to get better at building big projects in this country. I think it’s a convenient argument [to blame NEPA], but I don’t think the American public buys it.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, blasted the proposal in a Jan. 9 statement, saying the changes “mean polluting corporations will have an easier time doing whatever they want, wherever they want, with even less consideration for climate change or local concerns than they’ve shown so far.”
Broad Industry Support
The proposal was met with applause from industry groups and congressional Republicans.
“Reforming the NEPA process is a critical step toward meeting growing demand for cleaner energy and unlocking job-creating infrastructure projects currently stuck in a maze of red tape,” said Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement.
Myron Ebell, who helped guide the presidential transition at EPA and directs an energy center at the free-market advocacy group Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in a statement that “bad court decisions and bureaucratic laziness have turned NEPA from a sensible tool to consider the environmental impacts of major projects into a weapon used to delay projects to death.”
“Fringe-left special interest groups will continue to scream bloody murder, but these actions by President Trump will ensure the government works better for all,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.