January 9, 2020 / 12:33 PM / 18 days ago

White House unveils plan to speed big projects permits

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled a plan to speed permitting for major infrastructure projects like oil pipelines, road expansions and bridges, one of the biggest deregulatory actions of the president’s tenure.

The plan, released by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), would help the administration advance big energy and infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL oil pipeline or roads, bridges and federal buildings that President Donald Trump and industry groups complained have been hampered by red tape.

“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 the how NEPA, the 50-year bedrock federal environmental law, is implemented is part of Trump’s broader effort to cut regulations and oversight to boost industry.

“This proposal affects virtually every significant decision made by the federal government that affects the environment,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said, adding that the NEPA reform would be the “most significant deregulatory proposal” of the Trump administration.

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.

CEQ chair Mary Neumayr told reporters that the agency will weigh feedback during the rule’s comment period on whether or how to more explicitly address climate impacts.

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 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 here 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 change include widening the categories of projects that can be excluded from NEPA altogether. If a type of project got a “categorical exclusion” from one agency in the past, for example, it would automatically be excluded from review by other agencies, according to the plan.

According to CEQ, the average length of a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement is currently 600 pages and takes 4.5 years to conclude. U.S. 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, U.S. program director at Oil Change International, an environmental group.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks following missile attacks by Iran on U.S. bases in Iraq as Vice President Mike Pence looks on in the Grand Foyer at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 8, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The plan will go through a 60-public comment period before being finalized.

Environmental groups are expected challenge the final proposal.

“If the regulations announced today drive agencies to diminish the extent or quality of their reporting, federal courts may very well conclude that their reports do not comply with the law,” said Notre Dame Law School Professor Bruce Huber.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Marguerita Choy

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