The Trump administration has moved quickly to advance plans for faster federal permitting of major infrastructure projects, including oil and natural gas pipelines, under the purview of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), with public comments now due in less than a month.
Meanwhile, a House panel passed a bill Wednesday that calls for some activities, including drilling on public lands and within national forests, to be excluded from NEPA review under certain conditions.
An advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) from the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) was published Wednesday in the Federal Register, posing 20 questions over whether and how the agency should modify its regulations under NEPA. CEQ said it would accept public comments on the ANPR through July 20.
The 20 questions are sorted into three categories, covering the NEPA process itself, the scope of NEPA review and general questions. Among them, CEQ asked respondents if NEPA regulations should be revised "to ensure that environmental reviews and authorization decisions involving multiple agencies are conducted in a manner that is concurrent, synchronized, timely and efficient." In addition, it asked if revisions were necessary "to make the NEPA process more efficient" by using earlier environmental studies conducted by federal, state, tribal and local agencies.
CEQ also asked whether some NEPA terms, definitions and documents should be revised.
The ANPR satisfies an executive order (EO) that President Trump signed last August, which called for the federal government to expedite its review and permitting of major infrastructure projects, including oil and natural gas pipelines. The EO drew immediate praise from trade associations representing the oil and gas industry.
Last April, CEQ issued a joint memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the White House Office of Management and Budget calling for faster federal review and permitting of the projects. The MOU was signed by the Departments of Interior (DOI) and Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"In contrast to the 'rip it up' approach the Trump administration has taken to various rules issued by the prior administration, potential revisions to the NEPA regulations have been consistently cast in policy pronouncements as a 'write it again' exercise," analysts with ClearView Energy Partners said in a note to clients Wednesday. "We expect that the current administration plans to narrow the scope of reviews within existing statutory authorities versus exercising discretion to broaden them, consistent with President Trump's deregulatory agenda."
ClearView also took note of the short public comment period on the ANPR, and said several stakeholders have already complained that it was "impossibly/unworkably short and too inside-baseball in structure to allow for robust participation from non-NEPA 'experts' or non-practitioners." Still, analysts don’t believe CEQ will extend the public comment period, and instead eo;; move forward with a notice of proposed rulemaking this fall.
That sentiment appears to exclude the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), which signaled its eagerness to weigh in on the ANPR, despite the narrow window to do so.
"INGAA appreciates the opportunity to provide comments on CEQ's NEPA regulations," spokeswoman Cathy Landry told NGI on Thursday. "CEQ's review will help ensure that these regulations are up-to-date and provide the clarity necessary for the informed decision-making that is the root of the NEPA."
House Panel Passes Bill
The House Committee on Natural Resources passed a bill Wednesday that calls for excluding certain activities, including oil and gas drilling on public lands managed by DOI, from NEPA review, specifically "if the activity is conducted pursuant to the Mineral Leasing Act for the purpose of exploration or development of oil or gas." National forest system land, which is managed by the Department of Agriculture, is also included in the measure.
The bill, House Resolution (HR) 6106, aka the Common Sense Permitting Act, was introduced last week by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) and passed on a 22-18 vote. It was unclear when the bill would make it to the House floor.
"The federal government has a knack for slowing down progress," Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said last week at the bill's introduction. He added that HR 6106 would "cut the red tape that is holding us back from energy independence and greater American prosperity."