Verbal skirmishing over proposed changes to the Nixon-era National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) continued even as the White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) prepared for its final scheduled hearing on the nation's benchmark environmental protection law.
Last month the administration unveiled an overhaul that would strip constraints on constructing natural gas and oil pipelines, power plants and other major infrastructure projects from NEPA, which touches almost every significant infrastructure project in the country. NEPA requires thorough impact assessments of major projects and allows the public to weigh in before a shovel is allowed to break ground.
CEQ held a hearing on the proposed changes in Denver on Feb. 11 and a second, three-session hearing was scheduled to be held in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.
The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and other industry groups have hailed the move.
The overhaul is is the only way “to ensure a more efficient, predictable and effective approach to environmental permitting," according to CEO Thomas Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Speaking in Washington, DC, Tuesday, Donohue and representatives of a coalition of 45 organizations voiced their support for a modernized NEPA.
"It's the only way to get real infrastructure development off the ground, and it's the only way to protect the environment as it needs to be protected," Donohue said.
Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet said the organization has basic disagreements with the Trump administration over climate change, but it believes NEPA reform "is absolutely essential" to climate solutions.
"If we have any hope of achieving a net neutral climate economy in 30 years, we're going to have to invest literally trillions of dollars in brand new energy systems. We need industrial strength decarbonization, and that is not going to happen if we have a regulatory system that is not able to build big things and build them fast," Grumet said.
At the same time, the group Public Citizen parked a truck outside the Department of Interior (DOI) that showed a video on a giant TV screen that it said demonstrated that DOI Secretary David Bernhardt "is too close to the fossil fuel industry to oversee public lands." The public must have a voice on proposed projects in their communities, the group said.
"Trump’s proposal to gut NEPA would allow fossil fuel projects to proceed untrammeled, ignoring the true long-term environmental costs to the climate and to the planet. Doing so would let fossil fuel corporations off the hook, allowing them to ignore the harmful impacts of resource extraction and focus only on short-term profits," according to Public Citizen.
Another organization, the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, argued that NEPA has been a key to protecting parks since it was enacted 50 years ago.
"The administration's proposed changes to NEPA will hinder involvement from the public and park management. They place the continued preservation and protection of our natural and cultural resources at risk," said Chairman Phil Francis. "There is a political motivation here, one that benefits development and the oil and gas industry, many of whom are Secretary Bernhardt's former clients, at the expense of our parks and the American people."
The White House proposal would narrow NEPA oversight using a new "nonmajor" category, and redefining a "major federal action" to exclude privately financed projects with minimal government funding or involvement. Federal agencies would effectively be given a green light to approve major infrastructure projects with limited oversight. It would be less cumbersome to build most pipelines overseen by federal authorities, including the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, which have suffered years of delays in some form.
The NEPA revamp, however, would not directly impact state oversight of infrastructure. Two-year deadlines for environmental impact statements (EIS) would be mandated, and pages included in the reviews would be limited. Also proposed to be scaled back is the definition of cumulative environmental "effects," which could make it more difficult to include climate impacts in an analysis.
CEQ is accepting public comments on the proposed NEPA overhaul until March 10.