Fewer NEPA Reviews Ahead — And They Won’t Need to Consider Climate Change

The Trump administration is taking its war on climate to infrastructure — it is expected to propose this week a rule rollback that in effect would allow agencies to NOT take climate change into account when they assess the environmental impacts of highways, pipelines and other major federal actions and projects, according to The New York Times In addition, the administration will also narrow the scope of environmental harms caused by the government so that the environmental reviews (aka NEPA reviews) must explain only those impacts that can be directly tied to a project or action and it eliminates the requirement to evaluate their “cumulative impacts” such as those exacerbating climate change.

Why This Matters:  Since no one pipeline or oil and gas well “causes” climate change, this rollback is designed to speed the development of many energy projects according to experts.  E&E News reported that the White House memo justifies the new rule saying it will “modernize and clarify the CEQ regulations to facilitate more efficient, effective, and timely NEPA reviews.”  If that were true and the administration could be trusted to update and strengthen the review process, it might be a welcome change.  There is a need to incorporate more robust data and analysis using new technology into the environmental review process — and even to speed it up when it comes to environmentally beneficial projects such as offshore wind development.  But we will be creating more problems for our kids and grandkids if we abandon NEPA principles and fail to fully account for, and minimize and mitigate, the environmental and climate impacts of government actions.

Industry Driven Changes

These changes come at the best of industry groups who, according to E&E News, wrote the White House in November seeking to weaken NEPA “in a manner that strengthens our economy and enhances environmental stewardship.”  The proposal will:

  • Establish two-year time limits for environmental impact statements and one-year limits for the watered-down environmental assessments;
  • Strengthen the lead agency role and requiring senior agency officials to “timely resolve disputes that may result in delays.”
  • Provide direction regarding the “threshold consideration” of whether NEPA applies;
  • Require that public comments be “specific” and “timely submitted;”
  • Clarify definitions such as “major federal action” to ensure they do not include projects with minimal federal funding or involvement;
  • Clarify that “reasonable alternatives must be technically and economically feasible;” and
  • Allow companies to conduct their own environmental review “under the supervision of an agency,” the draft memo states.

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