Trump Administration Proposes Major Changes To Bedrock Environmental Law

Jan 9, 2020
Originally published on January 9, 2020 6:36 pm

Updated at 1:40 E.T.

In one of his most sweeping environmental proposals so far, President Trump says he wants to streamline an "outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process" that can delay major infrastructure projects for years.

Supporters from the fossil fuel, construction, ranching and other industries welcome the move, which they've long sought. Environmental groups warn it would sideline the climate impacts of highways, pipelines and other projects, and they promise a legal challenge.

The proposal would put new limits on implementation of the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which has not been updated in decades. 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. It also gives the public and interest groups the ability to comment on those evaluations.

"America is a nation of builders," Trump said announcing the move at the White House, whose "gleaming new infrastructure" used to be the envy of the world. Now, he said, too much red tape has delayed some projects and left others in dire need of updating, making the U.S. "like a Third World country. It's really sad."

A key part of the administration's proposal centers on whether agencies must consider the cumulative environmental effects of things like pipelines, which have attracted protests by climate activists across the country.

Under the new limits, federal agencies would only need to consider effects that are "reasonably foreseeable" and have a "close causal relationship" to the project. That could mean simply the impact of building the pipeline.

Environmental groups say agencies should also consider the impact of the oil and gas that would flow through it, to help the country plan for limiting the carbon dioxide emissions that warm the climate.

Mary Neumayr, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, says the average times for agencies to complete an environmental impact statement is 4 1/2 years, and it is even longer for highway projects, which average seven years.

This delay, she says, "deprives Americans of the benefits of modernized bridges and roads that enable them to get home to their families."

Industry groups say streamlining NEPA regulations would lead to more and better-paying jobs, as long-delayed projects could be built. In a letter to the administration last year, they said every $1 billion spent on infrastructure leads to 13,000 jobs.

Environmental groups also criticize a proposed two-year time limit for agencies to issue comprehensive environmental impact statements and restrictions on public comments, including topics covered and how quickly they have to be submitted.

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. For example, it would exempt "non-federal" projects with little government funding.

In another controversial change, companies could essentially 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 there are hurdles that could keep it from taking effect.

For one thing, if Trump loses his re-election bid, it's likely that the next president will drop the revised rules. Even if he wins, environmental groups are expected to file legal challenges. 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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The Trump administration wants to make it easier to approve big new infrastructure projects - think oil pipelines and highways. A proposal announced today would limit the environmental reviews for them, and in some cases, agencies likely won't have to consider how the projects will contribute to climate change. NPR's Jeff Brady reports environmental groups plan to challenge it.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, turned 50 years old on New Year's Day, but its future could look very different from its past.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We'll cut the federal permitting timeline for major projects down to two years, and ideally, we're going to try and get even less than that.

BRADY: That's much shorter than the four to seven years on average it takes now. At the White House, supporters stood behind the president, some in construction vests and others wearing cowboy hats. Today's announcement was part of Trump's effort to limit and roll back environmental regulations to boost the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: But this is just the beginning. We'll not stop until our nation's gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again. It used to be the envy of the world, and now we're like a third-world country. It's really sad.

BRADY: Beyond oil and gas and construction, other industries also support the changes to NEPA regulations. Jennifer Houston is president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Her members are subject to NEPA reviews for things like grazing livestock on public land.

JENNIFER HOUSTON: These reforms are very exciting. They will streamline the process, reduce duplication, allow more local control and let our cattlemen, our beef producers, go on back to doing what they do best, and that's raise high-quality beef to feed the world.

BRADY: Environmental groups, though, say these changes will hurt the country in the long run. The National Environmental Policy Act was designed to make government decisions more transparent. It requires federal agencies to consider and publish the environmental effects of projects before approving them. The law also gives the public information about how decisions were made and an opportunity to comment on them.

The Trump proposal places new limits on virtually every element of the law. It could even exclude from review projects like oil pipelines that are mostly funded with private money, and agencies may only have to consider the environmental effects of building the pipeline, not the climate-changing consequences of burning all the oil that would flow through it. Steve Schima with the group Earthjustice says the changes also would make it more difficult to plan for the effects of climate change.

STEVE SCHIMA: Without NEPA, on a rebuffed consideration of climate change, we're not going to be building projects that are going to be able to withstand increased flooding, increased wildfires and more extreme weather.

BRADY: Among the proposed changes, the Trump administration wants to give companies a greater role in conducting environmental reviews, perhaps even allowing them to do the reviews with oversight from an agency. Christy Goldfuss with the Center for American Progress was an environmental official during the Obama administration.

CHRISTY GOLDFUSS: It's baffling that the Trump administration thinks handing the keys of environmental review to big polluters is going to pass muster.

BRADY: These are just proposed changes. The public will have at least 60 days to comment. There will be public hearings in Denver and Washington, D.C. Environmental groups likely will challenge them in court, which means they almost certainly wouldn't take effect until after next November's election. And if President Trump loses re-election, a Democratic president likely would abandon this proposal altogether.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS & JULIA STONE SONG, "PAPER AEROPLANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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