President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced that his administration has finalized the overhaul of a key environmental law to help clear the way for major construction projects like oil pipelines, factories and highways.
The changes to the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act remove requirements to consider climate change before moving forward on a project and aim to speed up environmental reviews, which can take years to complete. But critics say the changes will gut the 50-year-old law and hurt the environment and communities.
Trump painted the action on NEPA, which requires the federal government to assess the environmental impact of a proposed project as well as gather public input on the idea from the community, as a way to get rid of the “maze-like approval process” that causes “massive delays” for projects.
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“For decades the single biggest obstacle for building a modern transportation system has been the mountains and mountains of bureaucratic red tape in Washington, D.C.,” Trump said at a United Parcel Service hub in Atlanta.
The final rule establishes a two-year limit for the completion of environmental impact statements and a one-year limit for environmental assessments, though a longer timeline for a project could be approved. Typically reviews can take four and a half years. The president, speaking in Atlanta, pointed to the expansion of I-75 in Georgia as a project that could benefit from the changes.
The administration first floated the changes in January. Separately, in June, Trump signed an executive order to expedite permitting for infrastructure projects with the aim of giving the economy a boost amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Wednesday’s move was welcomed by The American Petroleum Institute, which is the largest trade association for the oil and natural gas industry in the U.S.
“NEPA modernization will help America streamline permitting to move job-creating infrastructure projects off the drawing board and into development,” API President and CEO Mike Sommers said in a statement.
Sommers said the action would “jumpstart” pipeline infrastructure.
Despite help from Trump, the oil and gas industry has been struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic and mounting public pressure to act on climate change. Recent losses both in and out of courtrooms for pipeline projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline have raised questions about the changing landscape for the oil and gas industry.
One environmental group has already pledged to challenge the rule in court.
“Gutting NEPA silences voices and puts vulnerable communities, health, and our environment – including our air and water – at risk,” Kristen Boyles, a staff attorney at Earthjustice, said in a statement. “We’re not going to sit back and allow a decision that could harm public health during a public health crisis go unscathed. We’ll be seeing them in court.”
Other groups were confident the courts would be on their side.
“The foundational law of the modern environmental movement has been turned into a rubber stamp to enrich for-profit corporations, and we doubt the courts will stand for that,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.