NEPA ‘Phase 2’ revamp aims to reverse Trump, boost renewables

By Robin Bravender | 07/28/2023 01:30 PM EDT

The White House on Friday announced much-anticipated plans to overhaul federal reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Brenda Mallory.

White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory. Southern Environmental Law Center

The Biden administration unveiled a highly anticipated proposal Friday aimed at speeding up federal reviews of renewable energy projects and unraveling Trump-era changes to the nation’s bedrock environmental law.

The draft rule released by the White House Council on Environmental Quality would hasten the permitting process under the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA, for efforts such as wildfire management, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and offshore wind, the administration announced.

It would also encourage agencies to limit projects’ impacts on climate change and on communities already burdened by pollution. And the draft rule would remove Trump-era requirements about how the public can comment on projects.


The suite of changes in Friday’s proposal marks the Biden administration’s latest effort to ease the permitting process for major renewable energy projects that are central to the administration’s climate agenda.

“This rule is a key element of President Biden’s permitting reform agenda that will help us speed the build-out of our clean energy future while reducing pollution and harms in communities that have been left out and left behind for far too long,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The draft rule also includes changes required by a bipartisan deal to raise the federal debt limit this spring, such as page limits and deadlines for environmental reviews.

GOP advocates of permitting overhaul have signaled they’ll be watching closely to ensure that the administration’s proposal aligns with its promises.

Senate Republicans were quick to denounce the proposal.

“Once again, the Biden admin is attempting to layer on more requirements to achieve their own misguided policy priorities that create confusion in an already complicated regulatory process,” the Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee wrote on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. “This rulemaking just shows the need for further action by Congress to clarify the intent of NEPA.”

NEPA ‘pendulum swing’

Friday’s proposal — dubbed the Bipartisan Permitting Reform Implementation Rule by the White House — represents phase two of the Biden team’s efforts to overhaul federal permitting of projects under NEPA.

The Biden administration last year reversed some of the Trump administration’s controversial changes to the federal environmental review process. Notably, the Biden team restored requirements that federal agencies consider the “cumulative” environmental impacts of projects, including how they could exacerbate climate change and affect communities already dealing with pollution.

The latest proposal “fills me with hope that maybe the pendulum swing on NEPA reform will settle down and that we can just get back to good, solid environmental impact assessment and good environmental review,” said Ted Boling, who served as a CEQ career staffer under Republican and Democratic presidents and helped lead the Trump administration’s NEPA rewrite.

“I do think it’s very important that CEQ is, for the first time, actually codifying climate change and environmental justice considerations,” said Boling, now a partner at Perkins Coie LLP.

Green groups and renewable energy advocates threw their support behind the Biden administration’s proposed changes Friday.

“We are glad to see the White House prioritize environmental justice and community engagement in NEPA reviews, as well as setting clear review deadlines that will keep projects moving forward in a timely manner,” said Sean Gallagher, senior vice president of policy for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen praised the Biden administration for acting “to reverse the worst impacts of the Trump administration’s rollbacks and restore the regulations to their original, common-sense intent.”

The Biden administration announced Friday that its proposal removed “certain changes instituted by the previous administration, including removing detailed and onerous requirements on what public comments must contain to be considered by agencies.”

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, welcomed the mandatory considerations of climate and impacts on communities burdened by pollution, although he criticized the changes required by the debt deal, which he said “weakened” the NEPA process.

“The sooner this is finalized, the sooner agencies will finally get the message that they must walk the walk when it comes to protecting our climate and environment,” Hartl said. “The Interior Department and too many other agencies keep approving disastrous fossil fuel projects while giving lip service to the climate emergency. The clock is ticking, and this rule needs to be finalized before the end of Biden’s first term.”

The proposal will be open for public comment through Sept. 29, and CEQ plans to hold virtual meetings on the draft rule in August and September.

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.