Trump aims to weaken prime environmental law

The White House did not say how soon the proposal would be implemented; it first must go through a 60-day comment period. And expected lawsuits from environmental groups and Democratic state attorneys general could keep the rule tied up in court until after the election.

The proposal delivers a major wishlist item for industry and conservatives who complain the permitting process takes too long, adding years of delay and unforeseen costs. Industry advocates said environmentalists and liberal activists have weaponized the law to sidelines capital-intensive projects like oil and gas pipelines and highways.

“The Administration’s modernization of NEPA removes bureaucratic barriers that were stifling construction of key infrastructure projects needed for U.S. producers to deliver energy in a safe and environmentally protective way,” American Exploration and Production Council CEO Anne Bradbury said in a statement.

The proposal would impose a two-year deadline for environmental impact statements that agencies must conduct before approving activities that could significantly affect the environment, and one year for less rigorous environmental assessments. It would also expand the number of projects that could be excluded from NEPA reviews altogether, such as those that receive little federal funding.

For projects that require approvals from multiple agencies, the new proposal would assign one lead agency to oversee NEPA reviews, rather than having each agency conduct its own, as happens now.

Among the most significant changes in the new proposal is language that would eliminate “cumulative” effects from the factors agencies must consider — something agencies have previously used to incorporate considerations of climate change into their reviews. The new proposal says effects must be “reasonably foreseeable” and have a direct, causal relationship to the project.

Environmentalists said the proposal ignores the mounting evidence of climate change and will endanger the public.

“We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship. Americans deserve to have their voices heard before their families’ health and well-being are put at risk by projects that bring unwanted and unnecessary pollution and disruption into their communities,” said Gina McCarthy, who was EPA administrator in the Obama administration and now runs the Natural Resources Defense Council. “While our world is burning, President Trump is adding fuel to the fire by taking away our right to be informed and to protect ourselves from irreparable harm.”

White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Mary Neumayr said the proposal would also take comments on whether to codify parts of a separate draft guidance on how to assess greenhouse gas emissions.

The Trump administration repealed an Obama era guidance in 2017, which implored consideration of “indirect” effects from projects, and replaced it with a leaner version last year. The attorneys general from 18 states and the District of Columbia slammed that draft Trump administration proposal in regulatory comments.

Neumayr said an update was overdue, noting the rule had been amended just once over its history. She said it takes an average of 4.5 years to process federal environmental impact statements.

“Over time, implementation of NEPA has become increasingly complex and time-consuming,” she said in a press call.

Administration critics contend slow permitting, which administrations from both parties have called problematic, stems from threadbare federal funding and staffing rather than onerous rules.

“This isn’t about ‘permitting reform,’ ‘modernizing,’ or ‘streamlining,'” said Christy Goldfuss, who chaired the Council on Environmental Quality under President Barack Obama. “This is about allowing pipelines and dirty fossil fuel projects to bulldoze communities with less public input, and less disclosure of potentially harmful public health, environmental, and notably: climate change impacts.”