By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Major new U.S. projects like highways and pipelines will no longer require federal reviews of their environmental climate impact under new rules that the Trump administration will propose on Wednesday, sources familiar with the plan said.
The proposed overhaul would update how federal agencies implement the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law aimed at ensuring the government protects the environment when reviewing or making decisions about projects that include building roads and bridges, cutting forests, expanding broadband to approving interstate pipelines like the Keystone XL.
The regulatory change would be the first in 40 years by the White House Council on Environmental Quality which coordinates U.S. environmental efforts by federal agencies and other White House offices.
The council is expected to announce that federal agencies will not be required to consider “cumulative” climate change impacts when considering federal projects, said two people familiar with the CEQ rulemaking.
The council oversees how nearly 80 government agencies meet their NEPA obligations.
“President (Donald) Trump promised a more efficient process to provide Americans timely decisions on permits for vital infrastructure projects that provide good jobs, reduce traffic congestion, and enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods across our great country,” CEQ spokesman Daniel Schneider said by email.
The CEQ is also expected to limit the scope of projects that would trigger stringent environmental reviews called environmental impact studies, expand the number of project categories that can be excluded from NEPA reviews and allow companies or project developers to conduct their own environmental assessments, the sources said.
In a memorandum commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of NEPA on Jan. 1, Trump, who has been a vocal critic of regulations as a commercial real estate developer, signaled big changes were coming.
“CEQ has conducted a thorough review of its NEPA implementing regulations and will soon issue a proposal to update those regulations to address the many concerns my Administration has heard from hardworking Americans, small businesses, and State and local officials,” Trump said.
In November, over 30 of the country’s biggest industry groups ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to the American Petroleum Institute called on CEQ to hurry the release of the NEPA “modernization,” saying it was long overdue. (Read story https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-environment-nepa/industry-groups-urge-white-house-to-finish-overhauling-u-s-environmental-review-process-idUSKBN1XW1AU )
Environmental groups are concerned that by weakening NEPA implementation, the United States will lose a significant tool to combat and guard against climate change impacts and allow companies to harm local communities with less scrutiny.
Christy Goldfuss, former chair of the CEQ between 2015 and 2017, said the Trump proposal would cause lasting damage.
She said environmental groups have successfully blocked or delayed a dozen big polluting projects in courts by arguing that Trump agencies failed to weigh climate impacts in their reviews, a requirement created under the Obama administration.
“This proposal is really about trying to remove that barrier of the courts,” she said.
Stephen Schima, lead NEPA attorney for Earthjustice, said weakening NEPA implementation would deprive local communities of “the most widespread mechanism of citizen involvement in government.”
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; editing by Diane Craft and Richard Chang)