Trump Moves to Exempt Big Projects From Environmental Review

Jan 9, 2020 by

The New York Times

Sections of pipeline awaiting installation near Elliston, Va., in September.
Credit…Charles Mostoller/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The White House on Thursday introduced major changes to the nation’s benchmark environmental protection law, moving to ease approval of major energy and infrastructure projects without detailed environmental assessment or consideration of climate change.

Many of the changes to the law — the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark measure that touches nearly every significant construction project in the country — had been long sought by the oil and gas industry as well as trade unions, which have argued that the review process is lengthy, cumbersome and used by environmental activists to drag out legal disputes and kill infrastructure projects.

Under the law, major federal projects like bridges, highways, pipelines or power plants that will have a significant impact on the environment require an review, or environmental impact statement, outlining potential consequences. The proposed new rules would narrow the range of projects that require such a study and impose strict new deadlines on completing assessments.

President Trump, speaking in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, surrounded by city and county officials and labor union leaders in hard hats, criticized the law as a “regulatory nightmare.”

“We want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, bigger, better fast, and we want to build them at less cost,” he said.

“Today it can take more than ten years to build just a very simple road,” he continued, adding, “and usually you’re not able to even get the permit.”

The proposed changes would create a new category of federal actions, which Mary B. Neumayr, the chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, described as having “minimum federal funding or involvement.” Projects in that category could move forward without any assessment.

The changes would also eliminate the need for agencies to consider the “cumulative impacts” of projects, which in recent years courts have said include studying the planet-warming consequences of emitting more greenhouse gases. And they would set hard deadlines of one year to complete assessments of smaller projects and two years to complete studies of larger ones.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, called the effort the most significant deregulatory change proposal yet by an administration that has made regulatory rollbacks a hallmark. Mr. Bernhardt said he has seen environmental studies have prevented the timely construction of schools on tribal lands and visitor centers at national parks and hindered the ability of farmers to secure water supplies.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw it differently: “This means more polluters will be right there next to the water supply of our children. That’s a public health issue,” she said.

The changes, which would affect the regulations that guide implementation of the law but not the law itself, are expected to appear in the federal register on Friday. There will be a 60-day window for public comment and two public hearings before a final regulation is issued, most likely in the fall.

Legal scholars and environmental groups, which are almost certain to sue to block the changes, said the proposals threatened to undermine the safety of communities by letting agencies ignore how rising sea levels might affect a given project as well as the consequences of higher emissions on the atmosphere.

Richard L. Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University, said he did not believe the changes would hold up in court. The Environmental Policy Act requires that all the environmental consequences of a project be taken into account, he said, and that core requirement cannot be changed by fiat.

“A regulation can’t change the requirements of a statute as interpreted by the courts,” Mr. Revesz said. In fact, he argued, it is more likely that federal agencies will be sued for inadequate reviews, “thereby leading to far longer delays than if they had done a proper analysis in the first place.”

Ms. Neumayr stressed that the changes did not prevent or exclude consideration of the impact of greenhouse gases; consideration would no longer be required.

Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, called the changes a giveaway to the fossil fuel industries.

“These 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,” he said in a statement.

One person familiar with the announcement said President Trump, who will address the proposal, is likely to highlight a replacement of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge in North Carolina, which took more than 20 years because of federal studies. Administration officials will argue that the changes will help projects like that one move faster.

In some cases the federal government merely funds studies for small infrastructure projects, which triggers a required environmental review.

But the proposed regulation does not set a dollar threshold for what constitutes a large federal footprint, which one official said could also allow major mining, drilling and other projects to avoid environmental assessments.

“Our country is at a pivotal time for American energy,” said Anne Bradbury, chief executive of the American Exploration & Production Council, an oil and gas trade association.

She praised the administration for clarifying the regulations and creating what she described as a more-efficient process that “removes bureaucratic barriers that were stifling construction of key infrastructure projects.”

Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said he believed the changes would bring “rationality” to federal bureaucracy.

“There has been nothing more detrimental to the development of transportation, clean water, and energy infrastructure than America’s broken environmental review and permitting process,” he said.

Mr. Bishop in particular praised the hard deadlines for completing assessments, though he said “fringe-left special interest groups will continue to scream bloody murder.”

Environmental groups said the revisions would threaten species and lead to more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The proposal does not mention the words “climate change,” but courts have interpreted the requirement to consider “cumulative consequences” as a mandate to study the effects of allowing more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It also has meant understanding the impacts of rising sea levels and other results of climate change on a given project.

That means agencies will not have to examine whether a pipeline, mine or other fossil fuel project would worsen climate change. It also means there will not be any requirement to understand how or whether a road or bridge in a coastal area would be threatened by sea-level rise.

Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said Congress will look for ways to block the changes.

The existing law, he said, “ensures the environmental impacts of a proposed project are examined and that the public has a role in the decision-making process.”

“Not only is removing these requirements a bad idea for public health and our environment,” he said, “but it will end up costing taxpayers more when projects aren’t built to be resilient.”

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