In a challenge to the Trump administration’s modernization and streamlining of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 17 environmental organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing the government of “cutting corners” and injuring rule-making policy on infrastructure projects.
The lawsuit (pdf) comes two weeks after President Donald Trump announced the final rule that would modernize the 50-year-old NEPA regulations, streamlining the development of infrastructure projects and expediting the federal government’s decision-making processes.
The 17 groups are represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which claims that the changes implemented by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) on NEPA would reduce public input into major infrastructure projects and mask the pollution potential of such projects over their lifetimes.
Industry Organizations Welcome Reforms
“NEPA reform is critical for unlocking the nation’s infrastructure potential, advancing environmental progress and supporting the nation’s economic recovery,” Bethany Aronhalt, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, told The Epoch Times in an email. “By streamlining permitting, we can not only provide more certainty for the modern pipeline projects that are needed to deliver cleaner fuels but jumpstart projects for highways, bridges and renewable energy—all while maintaining important environmental reviews.”
The National Association of Manufacturers cautioned that efforts by the United States to onshore manufacturing jobs require basic infrastructure, but that permitting processes under the old NEPA system can take years—seriously damaging job creation and investment in America.
“Amid the COVID-19 pandemic it is more important than ever to strengthen U.S. manufacturing capabilities and operations,” said Rachel Jones, vice president of Energy & Resources Policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, in a statement on the NEPA updates.
“Onshoring manufacturing requires first establishing basic infrastructure—from water and energy delivery to transportation—before ground can ever be broken on a major facility,” she said. Jones stated that while obtaining permits for such essential infrastructure can take years, the CEQ’s steps would slash permitting times and boost job creation and investment in the United States.
A spokesperson for the Council on Environmental Quality told The Epoch Times that “CEQ does not comment on litigation.”
The NEPA, signed into law on Jan. 1, 1970 by President Richard Nixon, required federal agencies to examine the environmental effects that major projects could have on the human environment. The construction of highways, bridges, energy projects, electricity transmission lines, broadband cables, water pipelines, and other infrastructure fell under its jurisdiction, as did forest management, grazing plans, and wildlife protection schemes.
The NEPA facilitated the review of environmental impact statements from different federal agencies to evaluate and comment on the acceptability of the environmental impacts associated with a project. The Act also included provisions for members of the public to comment on and participate in such processes.
According to the CEQ, however, the NEPA process became increasingly complex over time, with extensive paperwork and delays. For example, the CEQ’s final rule on the update to the regulations stated that NEPA reviews of Federal Highway Administration projects “take more than seven years to proceed from a notice of intent (NOI) to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) to issuance of a record of decision (ROD).”
In 1981, the CEQ had predicted that most EISs would be completed within 12 months. Today, however, 25 percent of EISs take more than 6 years to complete. According to the CEQ, “these timelines do not necessarily include further delays associated with litigation over the legal sufficiency of the NEPA process or its resulting documentation.”
In 2017, Trump signed an executive order to establish “discipline and accountability” in environmental review and permitting processes associated with infrastructure projects. The CEQ was asked to “ensure that agencies apply NEPA in a manner that reduces unnecessary burdens and delays as much as possible, including by using CEQ’s authority to interpret NEPA to simplify and accelerate the NEPA review process.”
According to Trump’s order, it remained the objective of the federal government to safeguard communities, maintain a healthy environment, develop infrastructure in an environmentally sensitive manner, and provide accountability and transparency to the public on the processes involved.
However, the order also aimed to allow the government to “make timely decisions with the goal of completing all Federal environmental reviews and authorization decisions for major infrastructure projects within 2 years.”
Criticism and a Lawsuit
The SELC, however, claims that streamlining NEPA served to “downgrade” the Act. Kym Hunter, an SELC senior attorney, said the rewrite “simply jettisoned the rules to give industry executives what they want at the expense of the public.”
The organization claims that the CEQ held only two public hearings on rewriting NEPA, and proceeded with undue haste in reviewing comments from the public and concerned parties.
In addition, the 17 organizations claim that the rewrite fails to take account of either the cumulative impact of projects over time or their “indirect effects”—foreseeable changes to the environment that occur at a later date.
“Removing those considerations means communities will not be fully informed about the potential harmful consequences of proposed projects like pipelines, highways and intensive development,” the SELC said.
“The National Environmental Policy Act is the bedrock legislation that helps impacted communities protect special places from ill-conceived infrastructure projects, such as pipelines and dams,” said Jack West, policy director at the Alabama Rivers Alliance.
“For two decades, Alabama Rivers Alliance has engaged in the NEPA process to amplify the voices of ordinary people standing up for their own lands and waters. The current administration’s attempt to topple 50 years of fundamental environmental law is an illegal and transparent gift to industry.”
“Weakening NEPA rules is a body blow to the structure of environmental protections we’ve built over the last fifty years,” said David Sligh, conservation director at Wild Virginia. “Americans have the right to fully participate in decisions about our future and the health of our world and we will defend that right.”