The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled a plan to speed permitting for major infrastructure projects like oil pipelines, road expansions and bridges.
It is one of the biggest deregulatory actions of the president’s tenure and comes at the cost of greatly narrowing the use of one of the country’s landmark environmental laws, especially assessments of how developments could exacerbate the climate crisis.
Donald Trump is proposing changes that could allow projects ranging from oil pipelines to mines to move forward with far less federal review of their impact on the environment.
The plan, released by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), would help the administration advance big energy and infrastructure projects, such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline or roads, bridges and federal buildings.
“For the first time in over 40 years today we are issuing a new rule under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions,” Trump said at the White House on Thursday.
The proposal to update how NEPA, the 50-year bedrock federal environmental law, is implemented as part of Trump’s broader actions to cut regulations and oversight, a huge rollback effort that has dismayed and enraged environmentalists.
“This proposal affects virtually every significant decision made by the federal government that affects the environment,” said the interior secretary, David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuels lobbyist.
The proposed rule says federal agencies would not need to factor in the “cumulative impacts” of a project, which could include its impact on climate change, making it easier for major fossil fuel projects to sail through the approval process and avoid legal challenges.
A statement from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) president, Gene Karpinski, said: “President Trump is trying yet again to sell out the health and wellbeing of our children and families to corporate polluters. This misdirected proposal to change the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act is one of the most egregious actions the Trump administration has taken to limit the federal government’s response to climate change yet.”
He warned the implications for access to clean air and clean water and for public input “could be dire”.
The proposal would also put one federal agency in charge of overseeing the review process, instead of giving multiple agencies oversight of the process and set a two-year deadline for environmental impact studies to be completed and a one-year deadline for less rigorous environmental assessments.
Trump’s efforts to cut regulatory red tape have been praised by the industry. But they have so far largely backfired by triggering waves of lawsuits that the administration has lost in court, according to a running tally by the New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity.
Over the last few years, federal courts have ruled that NEPA requires the federal government to consider a project’s carbon footprint in decisions related to leasing public lands for drilling or building pipelines.
Other proposed changes include widening the categories of projects that can be excluded from NEPA altogether.
According to CEQ, the average length of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement is currently 600 pages and takes 4.5 years to conclude. US federal agencies prepare approximately 170 such assessments per year.
Trump, a commercial real estate developer before becoming president, frequently complained that the NEPA permitting process took too long.
“It’s big government at its absolute worst,” Trump said of NEPA.
Some of the country’s biggest industry groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, also have complained about lengthy permitting delays.
Environmental groups warned the plan will remove a powerful tool to protect local communities from the adverse impacts of a hastily designed and reviewed project.
“Today’s destructive actions by Trump, if not blocked by the courts or immediately reversed by the next president, will have reverberations for decades to come,” said Rebecca Concepcion Apostol, US program director at Oil Change International, an environmental group.
The plan will go through a public comment period before being finalized.
Environmental groups are expected to challenge the final proposal.