Biden administration reinstates parts of key environmental law, reversing Trump-era rollbacks that limited community input and prevented federal agencies from considering climate change when approving construction projects infrastructure, from roads to pipelines.
On Tuesday, the White House Council on Environmental Quality announced that it had finalized changes to implement the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, a more than 50-year-old law that requires the federal government to consider the environmental impact of major projects. Under Trump, agencies stopped considering the “indirect” impacts of proposed infrastructure and limited when groups opposed to the projects could weigh objections.
Now, federal agencies will once again be required to consider all impacts of an infrastructure project, including those that are part of a chain reaction or that develop over time. This would allow environmental reviews to take full account of climate impacts, the council’s announcement says, as well as prevent the release of “additional pollution into communities that are already overburdened by polluted air or dirty water. “.
“Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict and help ensure projects are built right the first time,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the Environmental Quality Council, or CEQ. , in a press release. “Fixing these loopholes in the environmental review process will help projects get built faster, be more resilient, and deliver greater benefits to people who live nearby.”
Adopted in 1969, NEPA has served as a key tool for environmental activists and community groups to oppose infrastructure that would damage the environment or expose vulnerable populations to toxic pollution. It was used to drag out the approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline – campaigners argued the project would lock in the US’ reliance on fossil fuels and increase carbon emissions, as well as increase the possibility of oil spills in an aquifer vital for drinking water and agriculture. Keystone XL was ultimately blocked by Biden on his first day in office. But NEPA has long been criticized by industry groups and conservative lawmakers, including the Trump administration, which viewed the environmental rule as an obstacle to development, especially fossil fuel infrastructure.
Wider changes to NEPA could be considered as the government enters the second phase of its rule-making process. But Tuesday’s actions, first proposed in October, were applauded by environmental groups.
“A good NEPA process requires strong community engagement, rigorous analysis and public disclosure, which leads to government accountability, better projects with more community buy-in and less litigation,” Abigail said. Dillen, president of the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice. statement. “As we transition to a clean energy future, following NEPA can and should help us deliver equitable solutions, including new, resilient and innovative infrastructure.”
But other rollbacks enacted under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, which shorten the timeframe for environmental reviews and exclude certain categories of infrastructure from the process, remain on the books. Amendments to NEPA at the time listed certain types of natural gas pipelines, as well as any surface transmission project costing up to $6 million (or $35 million if federal funding was provided), as “exclusions categorical”, which means that they have no “meaningful exclusion”. effect on the human environment” and do not need to go through an environmental review. The updates also limited environmental impact statements to 200 pages and, in most cases, required them to be completed within two years. Other laws enacted in 2005, 2012 and 2015 contained more than 60 provisions intended to reduce NEPA protections, environmental activists told Grist when the Infrastructure Act changes were first proposed. last year.
Tuesday’s announcement comes amid a flurry of climate-related action from the White House this week, as the Biden administration aims to demonstrate its commitment to environmental protection ahead of Earth Day. Earth. On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to provide an update on its efforts to limit the production of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a class of very potent gases that warm the planet, under a 2020 law. The White House plans to promote its “clean energy achievements” on Wednesday, The Hill reported, while Biden will travel to Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington on Thursday and Friday to highlight emissions reductions. in transport, infrastructure and climate resilience.
The push is part of an effort to prove that Biden’s climate agenda is alive and well, despite legislative setbacks to the president’s Build Back Better bill and criticism aimed at his response to Russia’s invasion of Israel. Ukraine and rising gas prices, a strategy that has largely focused on increasing domestic fossil fuel production. Build Back Better, which would have injected billions of dollars in funding for green energy infrastructure, has stalled in Congress since Sen. Joe Manchin announced his opposition, exposing divisions within the Democratic Party. And conservationists have sharply criticized the administration’s decision to restart oil and gas leases on federal lands, which officials say they were required to do to comply with a court order and to enable an increase in ethanol sales.