The Trump Administration has finalized reforms to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) it proposed in early January to modernize the environmental review provisions for federal projects and established statutory deadlines for completion environmental reviews.
At an event at the UPS Hapeville Airport Hub in Atlanta, Georgia, Trump said the reforms, proposed in January, were necessary to modernize a law that has been used by environmentalists to kill or slow vital infrastructure projects.
“We just completed an unprecedented … top-to-bottom overhaul … of the infrastructure approval process; this approval process that has cost trillions of dollars over the years for our country and delays like you wouldn’t believe,” Trump said. “This is a truly historic breakthrough, which means better roads, bridges, tunnels, and highways for every UPS driver and every citizen all across our land.
“Together, we’re reclaiming America’s proud heritage as a nation of builders and a nation that can get things done, because with these horrible roadblocks that were put in front of us, you couldn’t get it done,” Trump said.
Old Law, Modern Issues
NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions before they are implemented. The actions covered by NEPA are broad, including building highways and airports, managing forestland, and constructing transit systems.
NEPA has not been significantly updated since shortly after it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality reports the average time for agencies to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is four and a half years, and an even longer seven years for highway projects, and the average EIS exceeds 600 pages. The proposed NEPA reforms would require the federal government to complete all future environmental reviews within two years.
Other changes to NEPA include removing the requirement for projects that receive little or no federal funding to have EISs.
In addition, the NEPA reforms limit the scope of an EIS to a project’s direct effects on the environment, those that are “reasonably foreseeable” and have a demonstrably “close causal relationship” to the project.
As a result, EISs will not be required to account for cumulative impacts the project might have as a result of, for example, their post-construction operations or the development of other infrastructure multiple states away. For example, when developing EISs for pipeline or highway projects under the proposed reforms, project managers will not have to consider the potential climate effects of carbon dioxide emissions from the future uses of oil and gas flowing through the pipelines or from cars and trucks on the roads.
Maintains Environmental Protections
The NEPA reforms will expedite valuable infrastructure projects without compromising environmental quality in the United States, said Trump at the Georgia press event announcing the finalized rule on July 15.
“The United States will not be able to compete and prosper in the 21st century if we continue to allow a broken and outdated bureaucratic system hold us back from building what we need: the roads, the airports, the schools, everything,” Trump said. “With today’s proposed reforms, we will reduce that number by more than 70 percent … [w]e’ll cut the federal permitting timeline for major projects down to two years.
“At the same time, we’re maintaining America’s world-class standards of environmental protection,” Trump said. “We have some of the cleanest air and cleanest water on Earth. And for our country, the air is, right now, cleaner than it’s been in 40 years.”
Congress, Industry Support Reforms
The new rules will help the economy grow by eliminating the need to account for highly speculative impacts of infrastructure projects, said Paul Gosar (R-AZ), in a statement released by the Congressional Western Caucus, which Gosar chairs.
“Today’s announcement by the President that we are updating NEPA is welcome news for everyone in America who likes to see America build things and grow,” Gosar said. “For too long, NEPA has grown stale, wrapped in judicial decisions, lengthy paperwork requirements and more.
“What was originally just a checklist for project take-off has become a process and court mandated demand for every possible consideration, theory and potential impact for entire industries wrapped onto one project,” Gosar said. “This new rule will make NEPA modern, it will speed planning, increase citizen engagement, and allow America to build great things once again.”
The NEPA reforms will help jumpstart the economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown, said Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement.
“NEPA modernization will help America streamline permitting to move job-creating infrastructure projects off the drawing board and into development,” Sommers said. “Today’s action is essential to U.S. energy leadership and environmental progress, providing more certainty to jumpstart not only the modernized pipeline infrastructure we need to deliver cleaner fuels but highways, bridges, and renewable energy.
“These reforms will help accelerate the nation’s economic recovery and advance energy infrastructure while continuing necessary environmental reviews,” Sommers said.
Success Requires Agency Compliance
The NEPA reforms are aimed are eliminating burdensome, unjustifiable restrictions on critical projects based on unforeseeable, highly unlikely environmental impacts, says Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, in a statement.
“Eliminating the necessity to consider cumulative impacts of proposed projects, limiting the effects that can be considered to those that have a reasonably close causal relationship to the project, and excluding projects from NEPA review that have only minimal federal involvement are especially important changes,” Ebell said. “These and other reforms, if implemented by career civil servants and enforced by federal judges, should remove some of the regulatory obstacles that delay major infrastructure and natural resource projects for years and often decades.”
Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (email@example.com) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.