U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Flickr CC/Güldem Üstün)
Last week, at an event in Georgia, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that his administration had issued a final rule to “modernize and accelerate environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), so that infrastructure can be built in a timely, efficient, and affordable manner,” according to a press release issued by the White House.
The move is the latest in a series of actions the administration has taken to loosen regulations governing the energy and environmental sectors.
NEPA, long considered an important environmental conservation law, was signed into law on January 1, 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon, requiring federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decisions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NEPA covers a broad range of actions including decisions on permit applications, adopting federal land management actions, and constructing highways and other publicly owned facilities.
The Trump Administration, however, has argued that the environmental review process under NEPA takes too long and is too cumbersome, which impacts the ability of businesses and communities to plan, finance, and build domestic infrastructure projects. In its press release, the Administration highlights that “environmental impact statements average over 650 pages, and it takes Federal agencies on average four and a half years to conduct required reviews.” They also note that according to the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), “environmental impact statements for highway projects take more than seven years on average and often take a decade or more.”
According to a fact sheet prepared by the White House on the final rule, it “establishes presumptive time limits of two years for the preparation of environmental impact statements (EISs) and one year for the preparation of environmental assessments (EAs),” while also specifying presumptive page limits for both EISs and EAs.
The fact sheet also notes that the rule “will expand public participation and the involvement of Tribal governments in the NEPA process.” This includes “facilitating use of documents prepared by State, Tribal, and local agencies to comply with NEPA,” enhancing the “ability of Native Americans to participate in the NEPA process and ensur[ing] appropriate consultation with affected Tribal governments and agencies,” and eliminating “provisions in the prior regulations that limit Tribal interest to reservations.”
Environmental groups oppose the rule’s changes.
“This may be the single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the New York Times. He added that the Trump administration was “turning back the clock to when rivers caught fire, our air was unbreathable, and our most beloved wildlife was spiraling toward extinction.”
While unlikely to resume the long-contested Dakota Access Pipeline, which saw the Supreme Court uphold a district court order halting construction earlier this month, the Times notes that the updated rule “will speed decisions on future permits.”
The action was the latest in a list of 100 total environmental rules that the Administration is seeking to reverse, with 68 now completed and an additional 32 in progress. The administration has also rescinded water pollution regulations for fracking on federal and Indian lands and proposed a new rule allowing the federal government to issue permits for coal ash waste in Indian country and some states without review if the disposal site is in compliance with federal regulations.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has vowed to reverse the environmental rollbacks. Congress could also overturn the new rule via the Congressional Review Act.