By MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) – In the latest reversal of a Trump-era environmental setback, President Joe Biden is restoring federal regulations guiding environmental reviews of large infrastructure projects such as highways and pipelines. Reviews have been reduced by the Trump administration in an attempt to speed up projects.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality said on Wednesday it would reinstate key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, a basic environmental law designed to ensure community guarantees during environmental reviews for a wide range federal projects and decisions.
Last year, President Donald Trump revised the rules in an attempt to speed up projects he says would boost the economy and create jobs.
Trump has made reducing government regulations a hallmark of his presidency. He and his administration have often expressed frustration with the rules they say are unnecessarily slowing the approval of interstate oil and gas pipelines and other large projects. The rule change imposed last year tightened timelines for environmental reviews and public comment and allowed federal officials to ignore a project’s role in cumulative effects, such as climate change.
The 2020 changes posed implementation challenges for federal agencies and “created 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 America’s infrastructure is built right the first time and delivers real benefits – not harm – to people who live nearby,” said the president of the Council on Environmental. Quality, Brenda Mallory.
Contrary to claims by the Trump administration, Mallory and other White House officials have said the new rule will actually speed up the completion of major projects because rigorous scrutiny is more likely to withstand legal challenge by environmental groups or states. Many Trump-era environmental decisions have been overturned or delayed by courts after finding they had not received sufficient analysis.
African-American, Latino and tribal environmental groups and activists had protested the Trump-era rule change, saying it would worsen pollution in areas already reeling from oil refineries, chemical factories and other dangerous sites. The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, approved in 1970, is credited with giving poorer communities a platform to negotiate with government regulators and large industries on major projects.
“The National Environmental Policy Act is essential to ensure that federal project managers look before they get started – and listen to experts and the public about a project’s potential impacts on people and wildlife,” 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 fundamental protections of NEPA that were removed by the previous administration shaming the NEPA process.”
Rosalie Winn, senior counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the new rule will allow agencies to take climate change and other cumulative effects into account when assessing large infrastructure projects, including a number which would be authorized under a bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate passed.
The Environmental Defense Fund was among environmental groups that challenged the Trump-era rule in court. These cases are now in abeyance.
Winn said she agreed with the White House that following proper NEPA guidelines ultimately allows big projects to move faster.
“We certainly saw during the Trump administration a real failure to meet the demands of NEPA and other laws which ultimately slowed down and halted a number of their actions,” she said.
The new proposal “is an important first step in restoring NEPA guarantees and ensuring that the federal government considers the climate and environmental justice impacts of industrial projects,” said Winn.
The Environmental Quality Council will accept comments until the end of November. The rule change is expected to become final early next year.
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