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Trump Administration Proposes Major Changes To Bedrock Environmental Law

The Trump administration wants to overhaul a major environmental law - the National Environmental Policy Act - to help speed approval of infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines.
The Trump administration wants to overhaul a major environmental law - the National Environmental Policy Act - to help speed approval of infrastructure projects, including oil and gas pipelines.
Credit Jim Mone / AP
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Federal agencies may not have to consider climate change when approving big new infrastructure projects, such as highways or oil and gas pipelines, under new rules proposed by the Trump administration.

It’s one of the most sweeping efforts so far from the White House to limit or roll back environmental regulations it considers burdensome. Business and fossil fuel industries are praising the proposal, while environmental groups oppose it and promise a legal challenge.

At issue is the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which administration officials say they aim to “modernize and clarify.”

As one of the country’s bedrock environmental laws, it requires federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of proposed projects before they are approved. The law also gives the public and interest groups the ability to comment on those evaluations.

A key part of the administration’s proposed changes centers on whether agencies must consider the cumulative effects of a project such as a pipeline. Should they evaluate only the effects of building the pipeline? Or should they also consider what will flow through it? Fossil fuel industry groups want that consideration limited, while environmentalists want everything counted.

Environmental groups say the changes would make it difficult for the country to plan for limiting carbon dioxide emissions if only the direct effects of each project are considered.

Industry groups have long complained that NEPA has become overly burdensome and can take too long to get projects through the approval process. The Trump administration is responding to that complaint by revising the rules that govern how the law is implemented.

In November, 34 industry groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Mary Neumayr, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. They asked her to “modernize NEPA processes,” arguing that “securing approval for projects and land management decisions has become hampered by unreasonable costs and long project delays.”

The groups said it now takes almost six years, on average, to complete an environmental impact statement.

The industry groups say streamlining NEPA regulations would lead to more and better-paying jobs throughout the country as long-delayed projects could be built. In the letter, they say every $1 billion spent on infrastructure leads to 13,000 jobs.

President Trump underscored these industry arguments in a message issued earlier this month on the 50th anniversary of NEPA becoming law.

Environmental groups criticize the proposed regulations. They would set a two-year time limit for agencies to issue comprehensive environmental impact statements and a one-year limit for less intensive environmental assessments.

The proposal would also give federal agencies more power to resolve disputes that could delay a project and limit the projects that are subject to NEPA review. And it would place some restrictions on public comments, including topics covered in those comments and how quickly they have to be submitted.

Under the administration’s proposal, companies would also be allowed to conduct their own environmental reviews.

“This is a clearly a conflict of interest,” says Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president at Center for American Progress. She was a managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration.

“It’s baffling that the Trump administration thinks handing the keys of environmental review to big polluters is going to pass muster,” says Goldfuss.

The White House CEQ will collect public comments for at least 60 days before making the rule final. But it’s not clear whether it will take effect.

For one thing, if Trump loses his reelection bid, it’s likely that the next president will drop the revised rules. But even if he wins, environmental groups are expected to file legal challenges to the proposed rule changes. And experts point out that the actual underlying law remains the same.

“The law require federal agencies to report the environmental impacts of their actions that significantly affect ‘the quality of the human environment,’ ” says Bruce Huber of Notre Dame Law School. “If the regulations announced today drive agencies to diminish the extent or quality of their reporting, federal courts may very well conclude that their reports do not comply with the law.”

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