WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump finalized a major overhaul Wednesday of one of the country’s most consequential environmental laws on the grounds that it has slowed the construction of highways, pipelines and other major projects across the country.
The sweeping changes to the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, which opponents have vowed to fight in court and reverse if Democrats regain control of the executive and legislative branches this fall, underscore the stakes in this year’s election.
“This is a truly historic breakthrough,” Trump said Wednesday afternoon at an event at a United Parcel Service hub in Atlanta where he announced the move. He added: “Together, we’re reclaiming America’s proud heritage as a nation of builders and a nation that can get things done.”
The law requires the federal government to analyze the impact of a major project or federal action on the environment – and to seek public input – before approving it. Trump and his allies in business and industry argue that the law has proved costly and cumbersome to developers. But supporters say it provides Americans – particularly those in poor and minority neighborhoods that bear the brunt of many polluting industries – with a say on proposals that will affect them for decades to come.
Trump chose Georgia, which has emerged as a battleground state in this year’s presidential and Senate elections, as the site for unveiling his move. At Wednesday’s event in Atlanta, he noted that his action is expected to cut down the length of time for a highway expansion plan there to two years from the original seven.
“We’re going to give every project a clear answer: Yes or no,” Trump said to applause. A White House official said the move will benefit the UPS hub by reducing congestion and promoting economic development in the region.
Kym Hunter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a phone interview that it was hard to say the law had delayed Atlanta’s Interstate 75 expansion because it was still in the early stages.
The president can’t amend the law, but he intends to change the rules governing the way it is implemented. He wants to exempt some projects and activities from environmental review altogether while speeding up the time frame for reviews for other projects. In one of the most contentious changes, federal agencies would be told not to consider “indirect” climate impacts. While this category is not yet defined, experts said, it could potentially include emissions from burning oil and gas shipped through a new pipeline or increased traffic on an expanded highway.
Mike Sommers, president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, predicted that the changes would speed up the construction of “not only the modernized pipeline infrastructure we need to deliver cleaner fuels but highways, bridges and renewable energy.”
Erik Milito, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said in a statement, “A brighter future awaits countless projects, including planned offshore wind farms up and down the Atlantic Coast with the billions of dollars of investment and tens of thousands of American jobs they will bring.”
But critics warned that the White House is going beyond its legal authority by trying to change a law without congressional authorization.
“Trump can’t change the statute, and Congress and the courts have laid out clear parameters for what the federal government must do before approving or funding a project,” said Sharon Buccino, director of lands for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an email. “If the Trump administration tries to ram through polluting projects without the appropriate review and public comment, we will be right there ready to take them to court. As we have seen with the recent pipeline and drilling cases, the administration’s attempts to rush this process have led to lawsuits – and more rather than less delay.”
Depending on how many days Congress remains in session this year and the results of the fall election, Democrats may be able to overturn Trump’s move through the Congressional Review Act next year, or craft a new rule to replace it if the party gains control of the White House.
Matt Hill, a spokesman for former vice president Joe Biden, said in an email that the presumptive Democratic nominee would reverse the new rule if elected and focus instead on providing additional resources to underserved communities.
“No one should be fooled that Donald Trump is attempting to destroy a bipartisan, cornerstone law to distract from the fact that ‘Infrastructure Week’ never happened and never will happen as long as he is president,” Hill said. “Joe Biden knows what it’s like to inherit an economy on the brink of collapse and has successfully overseen a recovery that gets people back to work quickly and with certainty – and he’s going to do it again.”
Outside groups have managed to either halt or delay several of the Trump administration’s most high-profile energy projects and environmental rollbacks by invoking NEPA, including the Keystone XL and Atlantic Coast pipelines. They have also deployed it to scuttle lesser-known proposals, including a large trash incinerator slated to be built on a flood plain in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Hunter said that it made no sense to scale back the law at a time when marginalized communities were demanding greater input into decisions affecting their public health.
“This is a blatant and transparent effort from the Trump administration to further silence communities that are not as well connected, not as wealthy, not as valuable to the White House as others,” Hunter said. “And the fact that it is happening now, when so many in our communities are crying out for equity and fairness, is particularly appalling.”