Environment

Trump moves to overhaul the National Environmental Policy Act

Key Points
  • The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled significant changes to the National Environmental Policy Act that would make it easier for federal agencies to approve infrastructure projects without considering climate change.
  • The White House proposal would no longer require federal environmental review of construction projects that lack substantial government funding.
  • Environmentalists say the rules would endanger wildlife and lead to more carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
President Donald Trump speaks during an event to announce proposed rollbacks to the National Environmental Policy Act regulations in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, January 9, 2020.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled significant changes to the nation's landmark environmental law that would make it easier for federal agencies to approve infrastructure projects without considering climate change.

Many of the White House's proposed changes to the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act have been supported by business groups that contend the law has delayed or blocked projects like laying out oil pipelines and building dams and mines, among other things.

Environmentalists said that the rules would endanger wildlife and lead to more carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, and contend that the regulations should be strengthened not weakened as the world copes with global warming.

If the proposals are enacted, it would be the first overhaul of NEPA in more than 40 years.

The plan, released by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, would no longer require any form of federal environmental review of construction projects that lack substantial government funding. The change would also widen the category of projects that will be exempt from NEPA regulations.

"We want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, bigger, better fast and we want to build them at less cost," President Donald Trump said at the White House on Thursday.

Native Americans march to a burial ground sacred site that was disturbed by bulldozers during building of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

The move is the latest effort by the Trump administration to roll back a slew of environmental regulations in place to curb greenhouse gas emissions and protect natural habitats from drilling and development.

The changes are expected to be published in the Federal Register on Friday. There will be a 60-day comment period and two open hearings before the final regulation is delivered.

The administration has argued that the law can increase costs for builders, block construction projects and threaten jobs for American workers and labor union members.

"The step we're taking today, which will ultimately lead to final regulations, I believe will hit a home run in delivering better results to the American people by cutting red tape that has paralyzed common sense decision making for a generation," Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Thursday.

Jay Timmons, president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers, said that the president's plan is exactly what his group wanted.

"Our efforts should be used for building the infrastructure Americans desperately need, not wasted on mountains of paperwork and endless delay," he said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a senior member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, argued that the changes prioritize polluters and corporations over the environment.

"This NEPA rewrite favors big polluters and corporate profits over balanced, science-based decision making and would prevent Washingtonians from voicing their views on proposals ranging from siting a new fossil fuel pipeline in their backyard to building an open-pit mine that could destroy the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery," she said in a statement.

"We need to make smarter environmental decisions, not roll back the safeguards we already have," Cantwell said.

Crude oil pipeline being constructed by TransCanada Corp. in Atoka, Okla.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The administration's proposed changes might not make it through court, according to Bruce Huber, an environmental law professor at Notre Dame Law School.

"The law requires federal agencies to report the environmental impacts of their actions that significantly affect 'the quality of the human environment,'" he said. "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."

William Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the White House's proposal is consistent with other environmental regulation rollbacks.

"This is all about the election and Trump getting out there and shoring up his base," Snape said. "The Trump administration has been losing more cases than it's winning in oil and gas – and this is a chance to blame someone else."

— CNBC's Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting

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