WASHINGTON – The White House on Thursday introduced major changes to the country's benchmark environmental protection law, moving to facilitate the 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 National Environmental Policy Act, a historic measure that affects almost all significant construction projects in the country – were long sought after by the oil and gas industry, as well as unions, who argued that The review process is time consuming, cumbersome and used by environmental activists to eliminate legal disputes and kill infrastructure projects.
According to the law, major federal projects, such as bridges, highways, pipelines or plants that will have a significant impact on the environment, require an environmental impact review or statement describing the possible consequences. The proposed new rules would restrict the range of projects requiring this study and would impose new strict deadlines for the completion of evaluations.
President Trump, speaking in the Roosevelt Room in the White House, surrounded by city and county officials and helmeted union leaders, criticized the law as a "regulatory nightmare."
"We want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, bigger, better and faster, and we want to build them at a lower cost," he said.
"Today it may take more than ten years to build just a very simple road," he continued, adding, "and you usually can't even get permission."
The proposed changes would create a new category of federal actions that Mary B. Neumayr, the chairman of the White House Environmental Quality Council, described as having "minimal federal funding or involvement." Projects in this category could proceed without any evaluation.
The changes would also eliminate the need for agencies to consider the "cumulative impacts" of the projects, which in recent years courts have said include studying the consequences of warming the planet by emitting more greenhouse gases. And they would set strict deadlines of one year to complete smaller project evaluations and two years to complete larger project studies.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, called the effort the most significant deregulatory change proposal ever made by a government that has made regulatory reversals a hallmark. Bernhardt said he saw environmental studies impeding the timely construction of schools on tribal lands and visitor centers in national parks and hampered farmers' ability to secure water supplies.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw it differently: “This means more polluters will be there beside our children's water supplies. This is a public health problem, "she said.
The changes, which would affect regulations governing the implementation of the law, but not the law itself, are expected to appear in the federal registry on Friday. There will be a 60-day public comment window and two public hearings before a final regulation is issued, probably in the fall.
Law scholars and environmental groups, which will almost certainly sue to block the changes, said the proposals threatened to undermine community safety, allowing agencies to ignore how rising sea levels could affect a given project, as well as the consequences of highest emissions in the region. atmosphere.
Richard L. Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University, said he did not believe the changes would hold in court. The Environmental Policy Act requires that all environmental consequences of a project be taken into account, he said, and that the main requirement cannot be changed by decree.
"A regulation cannot change the requirements of a statute as interpreted by the courts," said Revesz. In fact, he argued, federal agencies are more likely to be sued for inadequate reviews, "leading to much longer delays than if they had done a proper analysis in the first place."
Neumayr emphasized that the changes did not prevent or exclude consideration of the impact of greenhouse gases; consideration would no longer be necessary.
Representative Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the changes an offer to the fossil fuel industries.
"These changes mean that polluting companies will be easier to do what they want, wherever they want, with less regard for climate change or local concerns than they have shown so far," he said in a statement.
One person familiar with the announcement said President Trump, who will address the proposal, should highlight a replacement of the Herbert C. Bonner bridge in North Carolina, which took more than 20 years because of federal studies. Government officials will argue that the changes will help projects like this move faster.
In some cases, the federal government only funds studies for small infrastructure projects, which triggers a necessary environmental review.
But the proposed regulation does not set a dollar limit on what constitutes a large federal footprint, which one official said could also allow large mining, drilling and other projects to avoid environmental assessments.
"Our country is at a crucial time for American energy," said Anne Bradbury, chief executive of the American Council for Exploration and Production, an oil and gas trade association.
She praised the government for clarifying the regulations and creating what it described as a more efficient process that "removes the bureaucratic barriers that were stifling the construction of major infrastructure projects."
Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said he believed the changes would bring "rationality" to the federal bureaucracy.
"There was nothing more detrimental to the development of transportation infrastructure, clean water and energy than the broken US environmental review and permit process," he said.
Bishop, in particular, praised the strict deadlines for completing the assessments, although he said "special interest groups on the left 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 the courts have interpreted the requirement to consider "cumulative consequences" as a mandate to study the effects of allowing more greenhouse gas emissions in warming the planet in the atmosphere. It also meant understanding the impacts of rising sea levels and other climate change outcomes on a given project.
This means that agencies will not have to examine whether a pipeline, mine or other fossil fuel project would make climate change worse. It also means that there will be no need to understand how or if a road or bridge in a coastal area would be threatened by rising sea levels.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transport and Infrastructure Committee, said Congress will look for ways to block the changes.
Existing law, he said, "ensures that the environmental impacts of a proposed project are examined and that the public has a role in the decision making process."
"Removing these requirements is not just a bad idea for public health and the environment," he said, "but it will eventually cost taxpayers more when projects are not built to be resilient."