President Trump today gutted the National Environmental Policy Act, a move that many environmental advocates worry will make it harder for people to have a say in how major infrastructure projects would affect them. The new rules speed up permitting for large infrastructure projects like pipelines and highways by truncating the environmental review process.
Environmental reviews are designed to figure out if a project will significantly change the environment around the project in some way. The process can take years and involves scientific studies, intense analysis, and time for the public to comment on the proposals. The new rules, first proposed in January, limit the timeline for environmental reviews to two years — even though the process frequently takes twice as long. The changes would also allow projects that aren’t primarily federally funded to bypass the environmental reviews entirely. The revised rules also permit federal agencies to ignore climate change when making their assessments.
“This proposal affects virtually every significant decision made by the federal government that affects the environment,” interior secretary and former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt said to the president when Trump introduced the proposed changes in January. “I believe it will be the most significant deregulatory proposal you ultimately implement,” he said.
NEPA helped Native American tribes and pipeline opponents secure recent victories. A federal judge decided in March that the US Army Corps of Engineers violated NEPA in granting a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, and earlier this month ordered the pipeline to shut down pending an environmental review. Pipeline opponents successfully asserted in 2018 that developers of the Keystone XL pipeline violated NEPA.
While today’s changes won’t affect pipeline decisions that have already been made, environmental advocates and attorneys argue that it will become harder for people to contest a major new infrastructure project in the future.
“[Trump] and his administration have no regard for the impact their actions will have on our most vulnerable — who are already overburdened by pollution, lack of access to healthcare, structural racism and other environmental injustices,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, former associate administrator of the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, said today in a statement. “This move is callous and reckless. It’s really that simple.”
Trump announced the finalized rules during an event in Atlanta. “We’re claiming 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 no matter how good you were,” he said.
The new rules were praised by the American Petroleum Institute but are expected to be challenged in court by environmental groups.