In a major overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act, a new rule released by the White House Wednesday would establish deadlines for completion of NEPA reviews and reduce the scope of actions needing such review.
It also would impose page limits on Environmental Assessments (75 pages) and Environmental Impact Statements (150 pages), although it said those limits could be exceeded with approval by a senior agency official and that additional material could be included as appendices.
The rule would eliminate consideration of cumulative impacts from environmental reviews, which many commenters said would preclude agencies from examining the effects of projects or actions on climate change.
It also would exclude from review “non-federal projects with minimal federal funding or minimal federal involvement where the agency does not exercise sufficient control and responsibility over the outcome of the project” and “farm ownership and operating loan guarantees by the Farm Service Agency.”
President Donald Trump said at an event in Atlanta that the changes are needed to reduce the amount of time it takes to review infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges. The rule “completely modernizes the environmental review process,” Trump said.
“It is critical to improve NEPA implementation, not just for major projects, but because tens of thousands of projects and activities are subject to NEPA every year, many of which are important to modernizing our nation’s infrastructure,” the rule said.
Not surprisingly, industry and environmental groups provided diametrically opposed reactions.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Public Lands Council, who have been critical of NEPA for delaying needed projects on their lands, said “the changes finalized today bring NEPA up to date, focus the attention on the real issues at hand, and ensure the government is avoiding speculative and duplicative environmental reviews.”
“Ranchers who hold federal grazing permits are subject to NEPA reviews for many reasons, including renewal of a term grazing permit, construction of range improvements, or to become eligible for participation in many USDA conservation
The Fertilizer Institute praised the rule for adding “needed clarity” to the NEPA process and facilitating “a more timely and efficient permitting process.”
TFI noted that both phosphorous and potassium “are natural resources derived from mined minerals” but that permits to extract them “can take many years to obtain. One of the primary permitting challenges is the uneven application of the provisions of NEPA by states and the federal government.”
The Agricultural Retailers Association was also pleased with the final rule, with ARA President and CEO Daren Coppock saying it “will speed up the approval process for much-needed infrastructure projects, which will especially benefit the rural communities in which ag retailers and their customers live and work.”
Environmentalists and at least one attorney general, however, vowed to sue over the new regulations. The Western Environmental Law Center, for example, said the rule “does not represent ‘streamlining,’ a ‘revision,’ (or) a ‘modernization’” and added, “We will sue.”
The rule will “deliberately and massively curtail public input on major federal decisionmaking,” WELC said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said if the rule is allowed to stand, “disastrous polluting projects — like coal mines, highways, incinerators, oil and gas drilling operations, and pipelines — could be expedited with little-to-no environmental review, public input, or analysis of long-term impacts on the environment, our climate, or the people who live near these projects.” The group said it would file a lawsuit “if necessary.”
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson also said he would file a lawsuit. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said “it is particularly irresponsible to be rolling back requirements to consider climate change, at a time when we are already experiencing the dire consequences of inaction on climate.”
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