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Trump’s move on key environment law feeds Democrats’ strategy

President Donald Trump at a UPS facility in Atlanta on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump at a UPS facility in Atlanta on Wednesday. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

With an eye on the November elections, top Democrats are ramping up criticism of President Donald Trump’s deregulatory environmental agenda, including his move Wednesday to weaken a bedrock environmental law from the 1970s.

At a UPS warehouse in Atlanta, the president trumpeted changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires that federal agencies analyze the environmental impact of major projects, such as chemical plants, pipelines, mines, highways and dredging. It also established the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, which released the new NEPA rule.

“Today’s action is part of my administration’s fierce commitment to slashing the web of needless bureaucracy that was holding back our citizens,” Trump said, telling the audience the rule would make it easier to build and use highways. “I’ve been wanting to do this since day one.”

[Trump administration proposal would ease environmental impact reviews for federal projects]

Considered a foundational piece of U.S. environmental law, NEPA has long irritated conservative Republicans and fossil energy company officials by tripping up the approval of major pipelines and other projects because of the environmental harm they would cause.

Even before Trump left Washington, Democrats unleashed a fusillade of criticism over the rollback.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the president was “coddling corporate polluters” and removing “the last lines of defense” for communities near pollution. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said the decision would harm those who live near construction sites — “particularly minority and lower-income communities that are most vulnerable to the effects of pollution and climate change.” 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi derided the move as “an anti-science, anti-governance assault.” Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said “the president gives polluters carte blanche to do what they want and he asks families to pay the price.” 

And Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., citing a report the Government Accountability Office released Tuesday, said the changes could prevent citizens from weighing in on major  projects, a process that has happened for five decades. “Among hundreds of ‘swampy’ acts by this President, this is among the swampiest,” Leahy said.

GAO report

The GAO found that the Trump administration has lowered an economic metric the federal government uses in its rules known as the “social cost of carbon” by about seven times versus the Obama-era standards.

In its final rule, CEQ set a goal of completing environmental reviews within two years and set page limits on environmental impact statements and environmental assessments. It also requires that environmental assessments be completed in a year. It would also modify requirements to consider climate change before a project can go ahead.

“The final rule will make the NEPA process more efficient and effective, ensure consideration of environmental impacts of major projects and activities, and result in more timely decisions that support the development of modern, resilient infrastructure,” said CEQ Chairwoman Mary B. Neumayr. 

Wednesday’s announcement builds on a proposal the administration unfurled in January to weaken NEPA by replacing it entirely. That proposal received more than 1 million public comments.

Democrats have been hammering climate change as a topic in recent weeks. Presumptive presidential Democratic nominee Joe Biden released a sweeping climate plan hours beforehand that would spend $2 trillion in four years to strip carbon sources from the U.S. economy. 

In the House, Democrats on Castor’s committee unveiled in late June a 500-plus-page report on decarbonizing the U.S. economy and insulating it from climate damage. And the party demanded climate provisions in a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, which the House passed 233-188 on July 1.

Republicans from states that produce and refine fossil fuels — Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John Barrasso of Wyoming and Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana — applauded Trump’s announcement.

Cramer said the law should not mean the delay of construction projects for years — a common criticism from Republicans and developers. “[NEPA] regulations are outdated, burdensome and unnecessarily complicated,” Cramer said. “It should not take longer to get the government’s approval for a project than it would take to build it.”

Industry response

The American Gas Association, the National Mining Association and the American Petroleum Institute, all industry trade groups, said they supported the new rule as a step to create jobs and speed the construction process of public works projects like roads, bridges and pipelines.

“A reformed permitting process will enable natural gas utilities to continue to deliver affordable and clean natural gas, which will be essential for our nation’s economic revival and achieving our shared environmental goals,” said Karen Harbert, AGA president and CEO.

In April 2019, a Montana court ruled against the Trump administration, finding that its action to lift a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands violated NEPA. That fall, an Idaho court found the Bureau of Land Management had not followed NEPA in a plan for a prairie bird called the sage grouse.

And in May, a federal court in Montana invalidated oil and gas leases that the BLM issued, ruling the agency had not properly followed NEPA and assessed the environmental risks of drilling.

NEPA has also proven to be a stumbling block for the Keystone XL Pipeline, a Canadian project under development for a decade that has been a key issue for the Trump administration, as well as the Dakota Access and Atlantic Coast pipelines.

Trump arrived in Georgia a day after he delivered a rambling speech in the White House Rose Garden, listing grievances and lines of attack against Biden.

In the Rose Garden, Trump, framing oil and gas economics as a campaign issue, railed against Biden’s support of the Paris climate agreement of 2015 and falsely claimed the former vice president wants to zero out petroleum.

“He wants no petroleum product. He wants no oil or gas,” the president said before turning to campaign strategy.

“I don’t think Texas is going to do too well,” he said. A UPS delivery truck was parked behind him with the company logo and an emblem of the state on it. “I don’t think that Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania are going to be too happy with that.”

Trump said the new NEPA rule would expedite the expansion process of Interstate 75, which runs through the Atlanta area.

Trump’s effort to weaken NEPA comes 50 years after another Republican president, Richard Nixon, signed it into law on New Year’s Day 1970. The law has so far endured largely in its original form. 

“The past year has seen the creation of a President’s Cabinet committee on environmental quality, and we have devoted many hours to the pressing problems of pollution control, airport location, wilderness preservation, highway construction, and population trends,” Nixon said at a signing ceremony. 

“By my participation in these efforts, I have become further convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and our living environment,” Nixon said. “It is literally now or never.”

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