On January 9, the Trump administration announced plans to accelerate permitting for major infrastructure projects in one of the largest deregulatory moves under the President’s leadership. Released by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the plan would allow several large-scale energy and infrastructure projects, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, to avoid legal challenges and go ahead with little pushback during the approval process.
The proposed update to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – a 50-year old federal environmental law which President Trump and industry groups have criticised numerous times in the past – would mean that federal agencies would not have to factor in the “cumulative impacts” of a project, including its impact on climate change.
During a press conference at the White House, President Trump said, “For the first time in over 40 years today we are issuing a new rule under NEPA to completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions.” The NEPA update is another step in President Trump’s efforts to remove regulations in order to give a boost to the energy industry.
The ruling will undergo a 60-day period of public comment before being finalised. According to Reuters, the proposal would place a single federal agency in charge of the project review process, rather than giving multiple agencies oversight of the process. The rule would also set a two-year deadline for environmental impact studies to be completed and a one-year deadline for less rigorous environmental assessments.
Previous moves by the Trump administration to cut regulatory red tape have often been met with lawsuits that the administration has largely lost in court. Over previous years, federal courts have ruled that NEPA requires federal governments to consider the carbon footprints of projects when deciding whether to lease lands for drilling or building pipelines.
A further change that the Trump administration has proposed is the widening of categories for projects that can be excluded from NEPA. If a type of project has received a “categorical exclusion” from a federal agency in the past, then it would be excluded from review by other agencies under the President’s proposal.
The CEQ says that the average length of an Environmental Impact Statement for a major project is around 600 pages long and takes around four and a half years to complete - a process which President Trump says takes too long and is a sign of “big government at its absolute worst”.
Environmental groups have said that the proposed change to NEPA would remove the first line of defence for local communities that can suffer from the impacts of a poorly reviewed and designed projects. Once the 60-day period of public comment is over, environmental groups are expected to challenge the Trump administration’s final proposal.