Regulators roll back NEPA for wireless projects

By Nick Sobczyk | 03/22/2018 01:33 PM EDT

Correction appended.

The Federal Communications Commission today voted to scale back environmental regulations for small wireless infrastructure projects, pleasing industry groups and angering environmentalists.

The commission voted 3-2 along party lines to approve an order to exempt certain small wireless infrastructure projects from NEPA and National Historic Preservation Act permitting processes, with the goal of expediting deployment of 5G wireless networks.


The high-speed network technology relies on small towers located close together, rather than the larger, more widely interspersed towers of older networks. Wireless industry backers say the order will cut billions in costs and speed adoption of next-generation wireless.

"You can stick with the regulatory status quo, or you can have 5G," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at the commission meeting this morning. "You cannot have both. To address that issue, we are going back to following the law."

But environmentalists and tribal groups were incensed by the order, which they say illegally allows the FCC and wireless carriers to skirt NEPA and historic preservation requirements.

"The FCC’s order is unlawful," Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "We will examine what remedies we have to contest it."

Environmentalists argue that the commission already has authority to streamline some reviews under NEPA.

And they’re particularly concerned about a provision of the order that allows wireless towers in floodplains to skirt environmental assessments so long as they’re at least a foot above the base flood elevation.

The order, which was championed by Commissioner Brendan Carr, also specifies that small wireless projects are not considered a "major federal action" under NEPA.

The NRDC, in its comments on the order, called that proposal "unlawful," pointing out that courts have ruled that any action involving an FCC license falls under that category.

"We support the rapid deployment of next-generation wireless technology; the FCC can do that without shutting local voices out of the process," Buccino said. "There are legal means the commission can use to tailor its environmental reviews, but it cannot just decide to ignore the law."

Correction: An earlier version of this article said the Federal Communications Commission voted 5-3; they voted 3-2.