The Trump administration is proposing to speed up the environmental reviews that are required on everything from new pipelines to grazing permits under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Industry groups and some unions hailed the proposed modifications to how the law's requirements are enforced, saying they would streamline what they see as a cumbersome NEPA process. But conservation groups generally said the changes would stifle public input and severely limit, if not eliminate, consideration of climate change when reviewing major projects.
“Current NEPA regulations have become an obstacle instead of an instrument for responsible management,” American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said. “The government has reached a point of analysis paralysis.”
“These sensible updates proposed by the White House's Council on Environmental Quality are welcome news to ranching families whose businesses have been impacted by the overwhelming and growing costs of NEPA compliance,” said Oregon rancher and Public Lands Council President Bob Skinner. And National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jennifer Houston urged cattlemen and women to “get their voice on the record by submitting comments in favor of this rulemaking.” Houston attended the event at the White House where President Donald Trump announced the proposal.
Grazing permits are subject to NEPA review.
Capitol Hill reaction was mixed. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was still reviewing the details, but added, “Antiquated federal regulations often stand in the way of critical infrastructure and other important projects that can create jobs, improve our standard of living and energy security, and yet still fully protect the environment.”
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., however, said that “while there may be ways to improve the process to both better protect the environment and provide more certainty to industry, this is simply another give-away to corporate polluters who will put profit before clean air and clean water and the health of our communities.”
Environmental groups were alarmed by the proposal. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, for example, said the “sweeping changes to the environmental review process … would effectively exclude climate change from the impacts federal agencies must consider when evaluating major federal actions like large-scale infrastructure projects.”
“Climate change is a reality for the 18 million residents of the Bay watershed being hit by more frequent and intense storms and floods,” said Lisa Feldt, CBF’s vice president of environmental protection and restoration.
The CEQ proposal would stop agencies from calling environmental effects of projects "direct,” “indirect,” or “cumulative” “in order to focus agency time and resources on considering whether an effect is caused by the proposed action rather than on categorizing the type of effect.” The elimination of the “cumulative effects” requirement is what environmentalists said would scuttle consideration of climate change impacts.
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A senior administration official, however, said in an email that “the proposed rule simplifies the definition of environmental ‘effects’ but does not restrict agencies from considering any environmental effects of proposed major federal actions, including greenhouse gas emissions or their impacts. Rather, it clarifies the definition to focus agencies’ analysis on those effects that are reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action.”
The proposal also would set deadlines of a year for NEPA environmental assessments and two years for what are usually much more detailed and lengthy environmental impact statements. Trump touted the new deadlines while criticizing the current process, where “it can take more than 10 years to get a permit to build a simple road.”
The proposal also would exclude from NEPA analysis "non-federal projects with minimal federal funding or minimal federal involvement such that the agency cannot control the outcome on the project.
"In such circumstances, there is no practical reason for an agency to conduct a NEPA analysis because the agency could not influence the outcome of its action to address the effects of the project," the proposal said. "For example, this might include a very small percentage of Federal funding provided only to help design an infrastructure project that is otherwise funded through private or local funds."
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