In the latest reversal of a Trump-era environmental rollback, President Joe Biden is restoring federal regulations guiding environmental reviews of major infrastructure projects such as highways and pipelines. The reviews were scaled back by the Trump administration in a bid to fast-track the projects.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality said Wednesday it will restore key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law designed to ensure community safeguards during environmental reviews for a wide range of federal projects and decisions.
Former President Donald Trump overhauled the rules last year in a bid to accelerate projects he said would boost the economy and provide jobs.
Trump made slashing government regulations a hallmark of his presidency. He and his administration frequently expressed frustration at rules they said unnecessarily slowed approval for interstate oil and gas pipelines and other big projects. The rule change imposed last year restricted the timelines for environmental reviews and public comment and allowed federal officials to disregard a project’s role in cumulative effects, such as climate change.
The 2020 changes caused implementation challenges for federal agencies and “sowed confusion among stakeholders and the general public,'' the White House said in a statement. The changes proposed Wednesday will restore regulatory certainty and “help ensure that American infrastructure gets built right the first time and delivers real benefits — not harms — to people who live nearby,” Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said.
Contrary to assertions by the Trump administration, Mallory and other White House officials said, the new rule will actually speed up completion of major projects, since a rigorous review is more likely to withstand a legal challenge by environmental groups or states. Many Trump-era environmental decisions were reversed or delayed by courts after findings they did not undergo sufficient analysis.
Environmental groups and African American, Latino and tribal activists had protested the Trump-era rule change, saying it would worsen pollution in areas already reeling from oil refineries, chemical plants and other hazardous sites. The 1970 environmental law, known as NEPA, is credited with giving poorer communities a platform to negotiate with government regulators and big industries over major projects.
“The National Environmental Policy Act is critical to ensuring that federal project managers look before they leap — and listen to experts and the public on a project’s potential impacts to people and wildlife alike," said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation. “This proposed rule will help restore several foundational NEPA protections that were stripped away by the previous administration making a sham of the NEPA process.”
West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the top Republican on the Senate Environment Committee, said the rule change “adds unnecessary red tape back into building infrastructure. As I’ve said before, we can’t ‘Build Back Better’ if we can’t build at all.''
Capito's comment referred to Biden's oft-repeated pledge to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, including a number of projects that would be authorized under a bipartisan infrastructure billthat has passed the Senate and a more ambitious, Democratic-only bill t hat would address climate change and other priorities.
Rosalie Winn, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the new rule will allow agencies to consider climate change and other cumulative effects as they weigh major infrastructure projects.
The Environmental Defense Fund was among environmental groups that challenged the Trump-era rule in court. Those cases are now on hold.
Winn said she agreed with the White House that following proper NEPA guidelines ultimately allows major projects to move forward more quickly.
“We definitely saw during the Trump administration a real failure to follow requirements under NEPA and other laws that ultimately did slow down and halt a number of their actions,'' she said. The new proposal "is an important first step to reestablish NEPA safeguards and ensure the federal government considers the climate and environmental justice impacts of industrial projects.''
The Council on Environmental Quality will accept comments through late November. The rule change is expected to become final early next year.