Trump proposes sweeping rollback of environmental oversight

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President Donald J. Trump announces the proposed changes to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

In a dramatic rollback of environmental oversight, President Donald Trump took action Thursday to clear the way and speed up development of a wide range of commercial projects by cutting back federal review of their impact on the environment.

“The United States can’t compete and prosper if a bureaucratic system holds us back from building what we need,” Trump said at the White House, surrounded by Cabinet secretaries, industry leaders and workers in hard hats.

Trump’s proposal calls for greatly narrowing the scope of the half-century-old National Environmental Policy Act, which was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

That law changed environmental oversight in the country by requiring federal agencies to consider whether a project would harm the air, land, water or wildlife, and giving the public the right of review and input.

Trump, who has targeted environmental rules in his drive to ease the way for business, said enforcement of the law had slowed federal approval of projects. “America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process,” he said. “The builders are not happy. Nobody’s happy.”

Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers said the proposed rollback would gut major environmental protections and take away the public’s right to know and comment on a project’s potential harms.

Key among the changes proposed is one that would newly limit the requirement for federal environmental review to projects that have major federal funding.

The change would mean a range of predominantly privately funded and managed projects would not fall under the law’s requirement for federal environmental study and for public review and comment.

Other changes including giving federal agencies no more than two years to evaluate any environmental impact of a project.

Mary Neumayr, head of the administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, said the changes would not explicitly bar federal consideration of a project’s impact on climate change. But environmentalists said a change instructing federal employees to disregard cumulative and longer term effects would have the same effect, however.

The proposal is to be published in the Federal Register in coming days, followed by a 60-day period for public comment.

“This proposal takes a sledgehammer to decades of legal precedence and puts our communities at risk,” said Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The administration’s overhaul “will eviscerate the public’s right to be heard and jettison science-based decision-making,” added Collin O’Mara, head of the National Wildlife Federation.

U.S. Representative Mike Johnson (LA-04), a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, had a different take on the president’s proposal.

“Since his first day in office, President Trump has pledged to cut bureaucratic red tape, and this overhaul of NEPA is another promise kept,” Johnson said in a statement. “While originally well-intentioned, NEPA has morphed into a vehicle for perpetual litigation, and it is just another illustration of government-imposed regulations continuing to burden hardworking Americans and the economy.

“In our region specifically, excessive delays have stalled critical infrastructure projects like the I-49 Inner City Connector, which has been held up in the NEPA process for nearly eight years. I applaud the Trump administration for putting the American people first by streamlining these crippling policies.”

Trump said the changes would deliver “gleaming new infrastructure” to the United States and would “completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told reporters that Trump would “deliver a home run … by cutting red tape that has paralyzed decision making” on projects.

Anne Bradbury, head of an independent oil and gas producers trade group, said among the proposed changes are ones that will speed up permitting of oil projects, including pipelines, on federal lands. The Trump administration has pushed hard for pipeline building to move ahead despite local challenges, along with calling for shortening the time and length of environmental reviews for projects.