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Environment & Energy Report

White House Nears Infrastructure Permitting Changes (2)

Oct. 15, 2019, 7:51 PMUpdated: Oct. 16, 2019, 6:44 PM

The White House has begun reviewing a plan to change the way it issues environmental permits for infrastructure projects.

If the proposal is finalized, it could speed up National Environmental Policy Act reviews for roads, bridges, ports, pipelines, power lines, Internet trunks, and water systems.

For now, however, the proposal from the White House Council on Environmental Quality is still at least several months from completion. CEQ sent its proposed changes to the Office of Management and Budget on Oct. 11.

Once OMB has reviewed the proposal, it can be published as a notice of proposed rulemaking and put out for public comment.

The Trump administration and business groups say federal permitting is too cumbersome and expensive, and must be sped up to spur growth. The proposed update to the rules for implementing procedures under NEPA, if it becomes final, is almost certain to be challenged in court.

“President Trump is delivering on his promise to streamline approvals and NEPA reform is another step in that direction,” a senior administration official told Bloomberg Environment in an email from a White House spokesman. “The Trump administration is pursuing commonsense, meaningful reforms to ensure America can build the infrastructure we need to provide for economic growth and job creation.”

NEPA Targeted?

Environmentalists fear the proposal from the Council on Environmental Quality will dismantle the protections of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, the nation’s first major environmental law.

Raul Garcia, legislative director at environmental group Earthjustice, said he worries the plan could eliminate public comment altogether and encourage wider use of a strategy in which agencies fragment a project into several smaller ones, thus avoiding the need to weigh cumulative impacts.

Already the administration has been ignoring NEPA in cases such as the southern border wall, which has been mostly exempted from NEPA requirements, according to Garcia.

Marna McDermott, who served as CEQ’s deputy general counsel under President Barack Obama, said she could see the sense in taking another look at the regulations, as they have only been substantively amended once since their issuance in 1978.

But given the signals the Trump administration has sent, along with its policies, “I do think it’s fair to assume they will be taking steps to make NEPA less effective,” McDermott said.

She also said she will be paying close attention to whether and how the proposal accounts for a string of court decisions finding that agencies must consider greenhouse gas emissions in their NEPA processes.

“The courts have pretty uniformly begun to say that should be part of a NEPA analysis,” McDermott said.

The proposal falls under the ambit of an August 2017 executive order that sought to make environmental permitting more efficient for big infrastructure projects.

On June 26, CEQ published draft guidance that encouraged agencies to quantify an action’s projected greenhouse gas emissions when the amount is “substantial enough to warrant quantification, and when it is practicable” to do so.

NEPA requires federal agencies to take a “hard look” at the environmental impacts of their decisions, including construction of infrastructure.

Agencies comply by completing environmental impact statements or environmental assessments—a process that environmental groups say is necessary to try to mitigate harms from projects, but one that industry complains often slows down development.

NEPA is “where projects go to die,” Bureau of Land Management acting Director William Perry Pendley said Oct. 11 at a conference in Fort Collins, Colo.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloombergenvironment.com