President Trump, on Wednesday, unilaterally weakened one of the nation’s foundational conservation laws, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), limiting public review of federal infrastructure projects to speed up the permitting of freeways, power plants, and pipelines.
What We Know:
- Trump announced the changes to the rule at the U.P.S. Hapeville Airport Hub in Atlanta, making the case that “mountains and mountains of red tape” and lengthy permit processes had held up major infrastructure projects across the country, including a lane expansion to the perpetually clogged Interstate 75 in Georgia. “All of that ends today,” Trump said. “We’re doing something very dramatic.” The Trump administration claimed it would save hundreds of millions of dollars over almost a decade by significantly reducing the amount of time allowed for completing reviews of major infrastructure projects.
- NEPA was signed into law by President Richard Nixon and requires federal agencies to consider the environmental consequences of infrastructure projects before they are approved. The law has also been vital in allowing communities to weigh in on how such projects impact climate change and their own health and safety.
- Revising the 50-year-old law through regulatory reinterpretation is one of the biggest deregulatory actions of the Trump administration, which to date has moved to roll back a total of 100 environmental and conservation rules protecting clean air and water, and others that aim to reduce the threat of human-caused climate change. This NEPA rollback also elevates the stakes in the November elections. Under federal regulatory law, a Democratic president and Congress could eradicate the NEPA rollback with simple majority votes on Capitol Hill and the president’s signature.
- Republican lawmakers, the oil and gas industry, construction companies, home builders, and other businesses have long said the federal permitting process takes too long and accused environmentalists of using NEPA to tie up projects they oppose. “This will modernize and rationalize the permitting process so that we can get these projects built at a state and local level,” said Martin Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. The rollback, he said, “is a big step forward and it’s about our nation maintaining its global competitiveness.”
- Changes that the Trump administration made to NEPA include setting new hard deadlines of between one and two years to complete environmental studies as well as also allowing agencies to develop categories of activities that do not require an environmental assessment at all. In one of the most bitterly contested provisions, the revision would free federal agencies from having to consider the impacts of infrastructure projects on climate change. It does so by eliminating the need for agencies to analyze a project’s indirect or “cumulative” effects on the environment and specifying that they are required to only analyze “reasonably foreseeable” impacts.
- “This may be the single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. He accused the Trump administration of “turning back the clock to when rivers caught fire, our air was unbreathable and our most beloved wildlife was spiraling toward extinction”.
- With the economy still struggling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has repeatedly said the government must loosen environmental rules to get the country back on its feet. Back in June, Trump signed an executive order allowing energy and infrastructure projects to bypass parts of certain laws like the NEPA and the Endangered Species Act, with the justification that it will “strengthen the economy and return Americans to work”.
- The NEPA change is likely to have an outsized impact on low-income neighborhoods that are already disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards like pollution from highways, pipelines, and chemical plants that are disproportionately located in their neighborhoods said Kerene N. Tayloe, director of federal environmental affairs at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group. “One new refinery in ‘cancer alley’ might not emit much alone, but combined, that cumulative effect would pose an unacceptable health risk,” Tayloe said, adding, “If we aren’t looking at legacy pollution, if we aren’t looking at the long pattern of environmental degradation, we’re only going to harm communities even more.”
- The revisions, if they hold up, are expected to lead to more permitting for pipelines and other projects that worsen global greenhouse gas emissions. It could also make roads, bridges, and other infrastructure riskier because developers would no longer be required to analyze issues like whether sea-level rise might eventually submerge a project. Despite this, the revisions to NEPA are not likely to be safe from the Congressional Review Act which allows Congress to overturn a federal agency’s rule-making within 60 legislative days of its finalization. If that fails, many critics believe it will be subject to a lengthy court battle.
“NEPA’s dismantling is a win for corruption, a win for polluters, and a win for those that profit off the destruction of our planet,” Hartl said. “Everyone else loses.” Presumptive Democratic Nominee Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion climate plan earlier this week and is expected to reverse this rollback if elected in November.