President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that he is rolling back Nixon-era National Environmental Policy Act regulations for how and when authorities must conduct environmental reviews, making it easier to build highways, pipelines, chemical and solar plants and other projects.
The 1970 law changed environmental oversight in the United States by requiring federal agencies to consider whether a project would harm the air, land, water or wildlife, and giving the public the right of review and input.
Critics called Trump’s move a cynical attempt to limit the public’s ability to examine and influence proposed projects under one of the country’s bedrock environmental protection laws.
But Trump said that, “Together we’re reclaiming America’s proud heritage as a nation of builders and a nation that can get things done.”
Trump has made slashing government regulation a hallmark of his presidency and held it out as a way to boost jobs. Environmental groups say the regulatory rollbacks threaten public health and make it harder to curb global warming. With Congress and the administration divided over how to increase infrastructure investment, the president is relying on his deregulation push to demonstrate progress.
Major Changes in New Rule
Among the major changes in the new rule: limiting when federal environmental reviews of projects are mandated and capping how long federal agencies and the public have to evaluate and comment on any environmental impact of a project.
“We won’t get certain projects through for environmental reasons,” Trump said. “They have to be environmentally sound. But you know what? We’re going to know in a year. We’re going to know in a year and a half. We’re not going to know in 20 years.”
NEPA requires all federal agencies to evaluate the potential environmental effects of proposed projects, but fewer than 1% of those reviews are the kind of complex and detailed review that Trump focused on – environmental impact statements.
Opponents say the changes the Trump administration made will have an inordinate effect on predominantly minority communities. More than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities and face a cancer risk above the Environmental Protection Agency’s level of concern from toxins emitted by those facilities, according to a 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Donald Trump is taking away the last lines of defense for front-line communities,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Business Groups Support Changes
“Modernizing and clarifying NEPA could not come at a better time for our country, as we are recovering from COVID-19,” said Anne Bradbury, CEO of the American Exploration and Production Council, a trade group for oil and gas explorers.
The White House said the administration’s efforts will expedite the expansion of Interstate 75 near Atlanta, an important freight route where traffic can often slow to a crawl. The state will create two interstate lanes designed solely for commercial trucks. The state announced last fall, before the White House unveiled its proposed rule, that it was moving up the deadline for substantially completing the project to 2028.
Republican lawmakers applauded the new rule, saying an update was long overdue.
“We can protect the environment and move our economy forward at the same time. This rule gets that done,” said Sen. John Barrasso, the chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works.