Approving new pipelines, mines, highways, and other major projects could become much easier under new rules proposed by President Trump today. Speaking from the White House, the president moved to amend the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a cornerstone of environmental law in the US.
NEPA requires agencies to get public feedback on new projects, and to consider the potential environmental harms associated with any new federal or federally funded project. It’s been used to oppose contested projects like the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. Trump’s proposed changes would exempt projects that aren’t primarily federally funded. It would also place a tight two-year time limit on performing environmental reviews that typically take years longer, and even puts a cap on the number of pages allowed in the Environmental Impact Statements required by the law. Trump said the move would speed up critical infrastructure projects that have “been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously burdensome federal approval process.”
This latest environmental rollback, one of more than 95 since Trump took office, could result in the most dramatic consequences yet. “This is a really, really big proposal. This proposal affects virtually every significant decision made by the federal government that affects the environment,” interior secretary and former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt said at the White House today. Turning to the president, he added, “I believe it will be the most significant deregulatory proposal you ultimately implement.”
Many environmental advocates were outraged. They’re concerned that the proposal will make it easier to push forward projects that add to the climate crisis or that will hurt communities living closest to energy and infrastructure projects of which NEPA applies.
“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,” Gina McCarthy, former EPA administrator under the Obama administration, said in a statement. She’s now the chief executive of the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This is a threat communities across the country but especially to black and brown communities suffering from #AirPollution,” tweeted Heather McTeer Toney, national field director for Moms Clean Air Force. Toney was also appointed by Obama as a regional administrator for the EPA and served as the first African American mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. Black Americans are disproportionately exposed to pollution from oil and gas facilities, according to a 2017 report by the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force.
Changes to NEPA were welcomed by oil and gas groups and some labor organizations. “Reforming the NEPA process is a critical step toward meeting growing demand for cleaner energy and unlocking job-creating infrastructure projects currently stuck in a maze of red tape,” president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement.
There will be a 60-day comment period before the proposed rule change can be finalized.