The public comment period for revisions to the Nixon-era National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) proposed by White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) came to a close Tuesday, with environmental groups still fighting the changes.
The administration unveiled an overhaul in January 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.
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.
The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and other industry organizations have hailed the move, while environmental groups have argued that it would favor energy companies over the general public in citing oil and gas projects on public lands.
On Monday a judge in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia denied a motion filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) seeking to close the rulemaking's notice and comment period and to require CEQ to produce documents SELC has sought through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. At the same time, Judge Glen Conrad granted an SELC request to accelerate the schedule for CEQ to complete its response to the FOIA request.