Trump Officials To Overhaul National Environmental Policy Act

Jan 9, 2020
Originally published on January 9, 2020 5:49 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump today announced sweeping changes to one of the country's most consequential environmental laws, one that he argues has for years blocked improvements to the nation's infrastructure.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For the first time in over 40 years, today we're issuing a proposed new rule under the National Environmental Policy Act to completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions.

MARTIN: If the proposal takes effect, federal agencies would no longer have to consider climate change when approving major new projects like pipelines and highways. NPR's Jeff Brady joins us to explain. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, first of all, just explain more about what this law is and what would change.

BRADY: Right. Yeah, it's the National Environmental Policy Act, known by its acronym NEPA. It's been around for 50 years. It requires federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of proposed projects before approving them. It also gives the public a chance to comment on them. The proposed changes announced today - they've long been sought by a wide range of industries. They claim that these environmental reviews are just taking too long, and they say they're too expensive.

Overall, the administration is reining in NEPA here, reducing the scope of what kind of projects might be subject to the law and what will be considered during the review process. The administration's goal is to complete these extensive environmental reviews within two years, and for less comprehensive environmental assessments within a year.

MARTIN: So you said that this law, NEPA, requires federal agencies to, quote, "consider the environmental effects." I mean, what does that actually mean in practice?

BRADY: Well, for climate change, one big issue here is whether an agency has to consider the cumulative environmental effects of a project. So think about an oil pipeline. Under these changes, an agency might only have to consider the effects of building that pipeline. But environmental groups especially want agencies to count everything, including the oil that would flow through that pipeline because that's going to be burned and emit carbon. They argue that not having that information makes it very difficult to plan for climate change.

MARTIN: What's been the reaction?

BRADY: Well, the industries that have called for streamlining these environmental reviews, they're very happy. This is the kind of changes they've wanted for a long time. And it's not just the oil and gas industry we're talking about here, also big construction companies who build highways, even some renewable energy projects that can take years to get through the environmental reviews. Environmental groups, though, are very critical of this. One thing the administration wants to do is give companies a greater role in conducting environmental reviews, maybe even allowing those companies to do them completely on their own, still with some oversight from an agency. Christy Goldfuss - she's with the Center for American Progress. She was an environmental official during the Obama administration. Here's what she had to say about that.

CHRISTY GOLDFUSS: This is clearly a conflict of interest to just say to the company, go ahead and tell us what the environmental impacts are going to be. Does anyone believe that's actually going to result in information that the public can trust or that we can use in the future to make wise decisions?

MARTIN: So what now? I mean, the administration makes this announcement, the president makes this announcement. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a done deal, right?

BRADY: Right. There is going to be a 60-day public comment period. That likely will be extended because this is a complicated rulemaking. There'll be a couple public hearings. One of them is going to be in Denver and another in Washington, D.C. But there's really a question about whether these changes will ever even be implemented because there's going to be court challenges. And so that means they're not going to go into effect before the November election. And if the president happened to lose that election, it's unlikely that a Democratic president would go ahead with these proposals.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Jeff Brady on this proposed change. Thanks so much, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.