President Trump Announces Proposed National Environmental Policy Act Regulations

President Trump Announces Proposed National Environmental Policy Act Regulations

by Timothy Puko

Business, energy groups cheer proposal that environmental advocates say would hamper efforts to slow climate change

Ppresident Trump proposed the first comprehensive overhaul of National Environmental Policy Act rules in more than 40 years, saying changes are needed to streamline approval of highways, energy pipelines and other infrastructure projects, as part of his administration’s broader efforts to pare environmental regulations.

The proposal was hailed by business groups, energy companies and construction unions but criticized by environmentalists, who said it comes as mounting threats posed by climate change make thorough review of infrastructure projects more critical than ever.

Among the more than a dozen proposed changes to NEPA’s environmental-permit rules, the government for the first time would set limits for completion of environmental reviews, which can sometimes take a decade or longer. Full environmental impact statements would need to be completed within two years, while less comprehensive environmental assessments would have to be concluded within one year.

“We want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways bigger, better, faster,” Mr. Trump said from the White House, joined by business and union leaders. “These endless delays waste money, keep projects from breaking ground and deny jobs to our nation’s incredible workers.”

The plan, which is subject to public hearings before it can be approved, faces likely court challenges from environmental groups and Democratic-led states. Some congressional Democrats said Thursday that the proposed rewrite was illegal. But leaders in both parties said the overhaul, if enacted, could mark the administration’s most significant change to environmental regulation.

“Forcing federal agencies to ignore environmental threats is a disgraceful abdication of our responsibility to protect the planet for future generations,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said this week, anticipating the overhaul plan. He called it a “gift to the fossil-fuel industry.”

Mr. Hartl and other critics are concerned the overhaul is the latest in a series Trump administration efforts to limit the government’s ability to address climate change. Recent U.S. government and United Nations reports have sounded increasingly urgent alarms, saying the world must sharply curb greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels to avoid the most catastrophic outcomes.

Mr. Trump and his cabinet members have dismissed those warnings or said they don’t have legal, effective ways to address them. They have instead moved to ease environmental regulations to help manufacturing and fossil-fuel development.

Industrial interests and building trade unions have said that NEPA, enacted in 1970, has become a tool of obstruction by environmental groups, which energy companies are fighting to build more pipeline capacity amid the recent boom in U.S. oil and gas production.

North America’s Building Trades Unions, a labor group allied with energy and pipeline companies, praised the administration’s NEPA proposal as a way to limit how long some of those disputes can last.

“We are fully supportive of the president’s initiative,” said the group’s president, Sean McGarvey, who joined Mr. Trump at the White House Thursday. Its members “look forward to the opportunities for thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people to go to work in the construction industry once these reforms are fully in place,” he said.

Supporters welcomed the move as a long-awaited effort to cut red tape by an administration that has so far failed to deliver on big promises to jump-start infrastructure development. Business groups have said lengthy NEPA reviews are partly to blame for the nearly $1 trillion backlog of transportation projects alone.

“Our country is at a pivotal time for American energy,” said Anne Bradbury, chief executive of the American Exploration & Production Council, a trade group for some of the country’s largest independent oil-and-gas companies. “The administration’s modernization of NEPA removes bureaucratic barriers that were stifling construction of key infrastructure projects needed for U.S. producers to deliver energy in a safe and environmentally protective way.”

The National Association of Manufacturers “called for exactly this type of modernization,” the trade group’s leader, Jay Timmons, said. “Our efforts should be used for building the infrastructure Americans desperately need, not wasted on mountains of paperwork and endless delays.”

Mr. Trump said it took more than two decades to finish environmental reviews for a new runway at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He added that it took even longer to start construction on a new, 2.8-mile bridge connection in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, he said.

“It took four years to build the Golden Gate Bridge, five years to build the Hoover Dam and less than one year—can you believe that—to build the Empire State Building,” Mr. Trump said, citing projects that predated by decades modern environmental concerns and standards, or research on the impacts of such projects.

Approval for Mr. Trump’s changes isn’t certain. Public hearings and review will take months, and many doubt the administration will have time to enact the changes before the Nov. 3 election.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D., Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, on Thursday called the rewrite illegal, potentially foreshadowing the lawsuits that could further delay or block an overhaul. He said courts have ruled that NEPA requires consideration of climate change, and any White House move running counter to that could invalidate the proposal.

The battle lines are likely to be drawn in the fine print of the overhaul’s mechanics. Cutting permit delays is a priority with a long history of bipartisan support. But the reasons the process takes so long and the solutions for shortening it are widely disputed and often partisan.

Part of the Trump administration’s push is to limit the scope of what agencies have to consider, and Mr. Trump said federal duplication of local and state efforts often causes delays.

Some Democrats counter that reviews often drag on now because declines in the government workforce leave fewer people to handle more work. They say insufficient consideration of climate change will only cost taxpayers more in the long run, through higher insurance bills and shorter lifespans for new projects.

“This NEPA rewrite favors big polluters and corporate profits over balanced, science-based decision making,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top-ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee. “We need to make smarter environmental decisions, not roll back the safeguards we already have.”

—Catherine Lucey and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this article.