President Donald Trump on Jan. 9 introduced a plan to expedite the permitting process for major infrastructure projects such as oil pipelines and bridges.
Once adopted, the proposed rule would mark the first modification in four decades on 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 plan, prepared by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, would help the Trump administration push through large energy projects that have been tied up over concerns about their effect on the climate.
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 Jan. 9.
“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 proposed rule would limit the time for the completion of environmental impact statements to two years and to one year for the completion of environmental assessments. The proposed rule would also limit the length of the assessment reports, which often total more than 600 pages. Executive branch agencies would also be allowed to adopt another agency’s determination to avoid duplicate effort and increase efficiency.
Environmental impact statements currently take nearly five years to complete, on average, according to the White House. The average for highways is seven years. Approvals for roads, bridges, airports, and railways have “been significantly hindered under existing regulations,” according to a statement from the White House.
The rule states that federal agencies wouldn’t 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 isn’t 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.
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 it currently 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.
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, 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 our 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.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue said at an event on Jan. 9 that the president’s new action is not all about the environment.
“Some of the changes that were provided in the recent actions by the president were so common sense, which just had to be done. And people are trying to make it all about the environment. It is not all about the environment. It is all about regulatory overburden, it is all about confusion, one regulation against the other,” Donohue said. “This was a good thing to do.”
The plan will go through a public comment period before being finalized.
Epoch Times reporter Emel Akan and Reuters contributed to this report.