The White House is moving to exempt projects without significant federal funding from environmental reviews that have been required for 50 years, a major shift that would make it easier to build mines, expand airports and lay pipelines, among other things, according to three people familiar with the proposal.
The individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity because President Trump is expected to unveil the plan Thursday morning.
The proposed changes would narrow the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires federal agencies to assess the impact of a major project before a spade of dirt is turned and to include the public in the process.
Industry has long complained about the process, however, prompting President Trump to note in a statement on NEPA’s 50th anniversary on Jan. 1 that it “can increase costs, derail important projects, and threaten jobs for American workers and labor union members.”
The White House proposal will almost certainly face legal challenges.
It represents one of the most forceful efforts to date by the Trump administration to strip away existing legal constraints on construction and energy production in the United States.
That interpretation of the law would make it much easier to build most pipelines, which have become controversial as activists have sought to block projects that make it easier to extract, transport or burn fossil fuels linked to climate change.
Federal environmental reviews of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines dragged on for years during the Obama administration, but Trump has pushed to accelerate their construction since taking office.
Other aspects of the proposal would set deadlines and page limits for environmental reviews, so that, with rare exceptions, agencies would have to finish their most exhaustive reviews within two years.
It would also scale back what constitutes environmental “effects” from a given action, which could make it harder to include a project’s climate impact in any analysis.
Officials at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who would not discuss details of the plan, emphasized that the law’s regulations have not been updated since 1978. “The Trump administration is focused on improving the environmental review and permitting process while ensuring a safe, healthy, and productive environment for all Americans,” CEQ spokesman Daniel Schneider said in an email Thursday.
Jay Timmons, president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers, said his group had called for “exactly” the changes proposed by the White House because his members’ efforts “should be used for building the infrastructure Americans desperately need, not wasted on mountains of paperwork and endless delays.”
American Exploration & Production Council CEO Anne Bradbury, who represents independent oil and gas operators, praised the plan, saying in a statement that it “removes bureaucratic barriers that were stifling construction of key infrastructure projects needed for U.S. producers to deliver energy in a safe and environmentally protective way.”
Drew Caputo, vice president of litigation for lands, wildlife and oceans for the environmental firm Earthjustice, said in an interview that these changes could be vulnerable to a court challenge because they would remove so many projects from federal review.
“The whole idea of the law is to give better information in advance to decision-makers and the public. It appears that these changes are an effort to undermine both of those purposes of the statute,” Caputo said. “It would basically make the federal government become an ostrich, sticking its head in the ground rather than thinking about the environmental impact of its actions.”
Although the 1970 law is not well known outside of certain legal and policy circles, NEPA compels agencies to analyze thousands of projects across the country each year. These can range from a mining company applying for a permit to drain a wetland to an energy company seeking federal approval to conduct seismic testing offshore or to lay down ice roads to hunt for oil.
According to the White House, each year agencies weighing projects prepare approximately 170 environmental impact statements — detailed documents that can run as long as 600 pages each — and 10,000 environmental assessments, which are less extensive.
Trump has repeatedly railed against federal judges who have delayed projects on the grounds that officials have not conducted a thorough enough review under NEPA.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” he said after a federal judge blocked the Keystone XL pipeline in the fall of 2018, faulting the federal government for failing to complete a thorough environmental analysis as required by NEPA. “I approved it; it’s ready to start.”
Unions such as the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) back the administration’s move to expedite environmental reviews.
“For the hard-working members of LIUNA, who have had their livelihoods put on hold as infrastructure projects become mired in a review process that is needlessly long, complex, and lacks transparency, the administration’s anticipated NEPA reforms are a welcome change,” said LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan.
But Hilton Kelley, an activist in Port Arthur, Tex., who has spent decades combating pollution from the petrochemical industry in his community, said weakening the law would have serious real-world consequences.
“The Trump administration is doing a serious injustice to people living in industrial communities,” Kelley said in an interview of the effort to scale back the bedrock environmental policy. “It’s a matter of life and death.”
Kelley said the law has long given residents near industrial facilities, pipelines and other projects the right to have a say in what is approved in their own communities. He said he fears the changes will take away that important tool.
In an interview on Monday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he could not comment on the upcoming regulatory changes until they were finalized. But he said the administration would ensure that when policymakers weigh a proposed action, they’ve “thought about the consequences of that idea for the environment.”