By Ivan Pentchoukov
The plan, prepared by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, would help the Trump administration push through large energy products, like the Keystone XL oil pipeline, that had been tied up over concerns about their effect on the climate.
Once adopted, the proposed rule would mark the first modification in four decades to how the executive branch interprets the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Enacted in 1970, NEPA is a bedrock environmental regulation that requires the federal government to assess the impact of major projects on the environment.
The move is part of Trump’s broader effort to cut regulatory red tape to boost industry. The president frequently cites deregulation and tax cuts as the major drivers behind the surging U.S. economy.
“Today we are taking another historic step to slash job-killing regulations and improve the quality of life for all of our citizens,” Trump said at the White House on Thursday.
“In the past, many of America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process—and I’ve been talking about it for a long time—where it takes many years to get something built.”
The rule says federal agencies would not need to factor in the climate impact of a project, making it easier for major fossil fuel projects to sail through the approval process and avoid legal challenges.
Assessing a major project’s impact on climate change is not mandated by NEPA, but over the last few years, federal courts have ruled that the law requires the federal government to consider a project’s carbon footprint in decisions related to leasing public lands for drilling or building pipelines.
The proposed change also would widen the categories of projects that can be excluded from NEPA altogether. If a type of project got a “categorical exclusion” from one agency in the past, for example, it would automatically be excluded from review by other agencies, according to the plan.
For projects requiring detailed environmental impact assessments, the rule would limit the review period to two years and the length of the report.
“The proposed rule seeks to reduce unnecessary paperwork and delays, and to promote better decision-making consistent with NEPA’s statutory requirements,” said a CEQ fact sheet about the proposed change seen by Reuters.
According to CEQ, the average length of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement is currently 600 pages and takes 4 1/2 years to conclude. U.S. federal agencies prepare approximately 170 such assessments per year.
Trump, a commercial real estate developer before becoming president, frequently complained that the NEPA permitting process took too long.
In remarks announcing the new rule, Trump noted that today it takes 10 years to get a permit to build “a simple road.” The president pointed to the 25-year delay in the construction of a bridge in North Carolina, the 15-year delay for improvements to a vital highway in Alaska, and the two-decade environmental review for the runway at the Seattle-Tacoma international airport.
“It’s big government at its absolute worst,” Trump said. “The United States will not be able to compete and prosper in the 21st century if we continue to allow our broken and outdated bureaucratic system hold us back from building what we need.”
Some of the country’s biggest industry groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, also have complained about lengthy permitting delays.
“We are fully supportive of the president’s initiative when it comes to NEPA and permitting reform,” Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, said at the White House. “This proposal does nothing to take away from the protections for our citizens, for our taxpayers, for our workers or for our environment.”
Jennifer Houston, the president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said that cattlemen are subject to NEPA reviews on a regular basis for grazing permits, improving their rangeland, or applying for federal programs.
“Although well-intentioned, it has become mired in a complex web of litigation and complexity and delay. These reforms are very exciting. They will streamline the process, reduce duplication, allow more local control and let out cattlemen and our beef producers go back to go back to what they do the best,” Houston said at the White House.
Environmental groups warned the plan will remove a powerful tool to protect local communities from the adverse impacts of a hastily designed and reviewed project.
“Today’s destructive actions by Trump, if not blocked by the courts or immediately reversed by the next president, will have reverberations for decades to come,” said Rebecca Concepcion Apostol, U.S. program director at Oil Change International, an environmental group.
The plan will go through a public comment period before being finalized.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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