In what could be the administration’s broadest attack yet on federal environmental regulations, the Trump administration on Thursday proposed making it easier to approve major energy and infrastructure projects, including new highways and pipelines, without full consideration of their environmental impact or their effects on climate change. Billed as an effort to make the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act more efficient, the new rules would make it easier for many projects with significant detrimental environmental impacts to proceed without crucial reviews.
In truth, NEPA probably does need a tune-up. The current regulations date back to 1978 and have been amended only once since, in 1986. It’s reasonable to assume that all those years of experience have exposed flaws and shortcomings that could be addressed to improve and expedite the environmental review process. But the Trump administration, with its open denial of climate change and its industry-friendly policies aimed at expanding the production of fossil fuels, is not to be trusted with such a task.
The proposed regulations show why. Among other things, they would weaken the ability of local governments and environmental groups to challenge projects, and deny NEPA review to projects with less federal involvement — which would lower a regulatory hurdle for privately funded pipelines. For projects that would be still be subject to NEPA review, the proposed rules would set a two-year deadline for the completion of environmental impact statements, which Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told reporters Thursday now take an average of 4.5 years. The rules also put page limits on environmental impact statements, and require the consideration only of “effects that are reasonably foreseeable and have a close causal relationship to the proposed action,” a definition that environmentalists say will remove long-term climate impacts from consideration.
The manufacturing industry, oil and gas producers and unions whose members work on such projects applauded the new rules, but others argued that they sacrifice the environment and undercut efforts to reduce the carbon emissions driving global warming. The environmentalists are largely right here. Trump and the coterie of former industry lobbyists he has placed in charge of federal environmental policy display little interest in the planet they are charged with protecting.
This isn’t a done deal. The new regulations will be subject to public comment for 60 days, and, ultimately, whether the law gives the administration the authority to place such stringent limits on the scope and nature of environmental reviews will be determined by the courts in litigation. But as a matter of policy, greasing the skids for projects that pose tremendous risks to the health of the planet is foolish.