‘Historic breakthrough’: Trump overhauls NEPA

By Kelsey Brugger, Maxine Joselow | 07/15/2020 04:28 PM EDT

President Trump delivering remarks in Atlanta this afternoon.

President Trump delivering remarks in Atlanta this afternoon. Evan Vucci/AP

This story was updated at 6:10 p.m. EDT.

President Trump this afternoon trumpeted the completion of rules to overhaul implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Speaking at UPS Inc.’s airport hub in the Atlanta area, the president touted his administration’s three-plus-year effort to rewrite the rules surrounding NEPA. He declared that his plan would jump-start the economy that has been depressed by the pandemic.

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"We are here to celebrate a historic breakthrough that will transform the lives of workers and families across the nation," said Trump.

"For decades," he added, "the single biggest obstacle to building a modern transportation system has been the mountains of bureaucratic red tape."

Trump traveled to Georgia for the infrastructure event with top administration officials, including Council on Environmental Quality Chair Mary Neumayr, who led the rulemaking effort, as well as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Fewer industry supporters made the trip than usual because of social distancing concerns, sources told E&E News (Greenwire, July 15).

The changes, proponents say, will "modernize" the intensive permitting process associated with approving pipelines, port terminals, renewable power plants, border walls and other infrastructure projects throughout the country.

NEPA, enacted 50 years ago, requires federal agencies to examine the consequences on communities and consider alternative options. Greens stress that NEPA allows communities to challenge bad projects.

Trump said his plan would cut the federal permitting process from more than 20 years down to two while still ensuring that the environment was protected.

The president added that the regulation would codify the "One Federal Decision" principle to prevent companies from having "to go through nine, 10, 12 different agencies" to complete environmental review.

"I’ve been wanting to do this from day one. And we started this on day one," the president said from Georgia.

Praise

On a call with reporters earlier today, American Petroleum Institute CEO Mike Sommers said he was "optimistic" about the changes, saying many projects have been "buried in paperwork for over a decade."

He argued that accelerated permitting would be particularly beneficial to get the economy moving again in a post-pandemic world.

Pushing back against well-established criticism that the changes would downplay climate considerations, Sommers, unprompted, argued that NEPA reviews would continue to consider greenhouse gas emissions.

"Agencies must consider all effects or impacts specific to the construction and operations of a proposed project," he said this morning.

Yesterday, Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma similarly expressed some optimism. "We all recognize that NEPA can be used to just stop projects," she said, adding that many projects should be excluded from NEPA review but often aren’t "because agencies are afraid to use them."

"There are so many situations with oil and natural gas," she said. "We know what the impact is, and we’ve already mitigated for it."

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said: "We can protect the environment and move our economy forward at the same time. This rule gets that done."

Greens, Democrats react

Environmentalists, however, overwhelmingly argue that the thorough environmental review process benefits the public. Lately greens intensified their criticism of NEPA reform and Trump’s ongoing deregulatory actions, with bolder language and broader allegations.

Climate Power 2020, a new political coalition of green groups, issued a press release saying, "TRUMP ROLLBACKS BULLDOZE COMMUNITIES OF COLOR."

Another statement, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that Trump "wants to muzzle" Americans and silence anyone objecting to "projects that could wreck their communities."

And the Center for American Progress declared that the final Trump rule "denies the reality of the climate crisis."

Numerous Democratic lawmakers have similarly been sending statements of disapproval ahead of the president’s remarks.

"The Trump Administration’s ongoing assault on environmental protections is out of control," said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). "It took many, many years to get something built."

The new NEPA rules may be vulnerable to being overturned under the Congressional Review Act if Democrats win the Senate and the White House, and retain the House. A Democratic aide told E&E News all options were on the table.

The UPS hub example

The UPS hub where Trump spoke is located at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which provides an illustrative case study on the NEPA process.

Hartsfield-Jackson has consistently ranked as the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic since 1998. In 1999, its leadership team proposed building a fifth runway to accommodate even more passengers.

The Federal Aviation Administration began preparing an environmental impact statement for the runway project in March of 1999, according to a notice in the Federal Register at the time.

The agency issued a final EIS in August of 2001, roughly 2½ years later, according to a subsequent Federal Register entry.

Construction on the 9,000-foot, $1.28 billion runway began in 2001 and finished in 2006, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

All told, the project took seven years from start to finish — less than the 10 years that Trump often references in his public grievances about NEPA.

"It takes many, many years to get something built — get something built — done in any way," the president said in January, when the White House Council on Environmental Quality unveiled the proposed changes to NEPA.

"It takes 20 years. It takes 30 years. It takes numbers that nobody would even believe," he added earlier this year. He made similar comments again this afternoon.

Andy Gobeil, a spokesman for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, told E&E News the project only took seven years to complete despite several challenging factors.

"It wasn’t as simple as raising a parcel of land and tarring it over," Gobeil said in a phone interview this afternoon.

"I mean, we had to make sure that we obtained the land; we had to make sure that we could build over a 10-lane interstate highway; we had to relocate a number of people," he said.

"So there were a number of different steps that it took to accomplish it. That’s not unusual for construction projects like this," he added.

Click here to read the new rules.

Reporters Carlos Anchondo and Lesley Clark contributed.

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