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Debt measure alters environmental law, but less than GOP hoped

GOP says law will limit scope of environmental reviews

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said the easing of environmental law 'is all about unlocking America's resources.'
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said the easing of environmental law 'is all about unlocking America's resources.' (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The limited language addressing permitting in the agreement to raise the debt ceiling will make the largest statutory changes to environmental law in decades even though it falls far short of Republican ambitions only a few months ago.

The most substantial changes to the 1970s law known as the National Environmental Policy Act focus on how requirements for environmental reviews are implemented. The debt ceiling measure also includes authorization of a study on transmission siting, faster permitting for energy storage projects and the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon, NEPA requires federal agencies to examine the environmental effects of major proposed projects. But many Republicans say the time needed to prepare the environmental analyses and impact statements unduly delays projects, delays that can lengthen if the studies are challenged in court.

House negotiators originally floated a larger permitting overhaul for the debt ceiling measure, reflecting the energy bill that the chamber passed in April. 

The final debt ceiling measure cleared by the Senate Thursday, and signed into law Saturday, specifies only that agencies need to consider “reasonably foreseeable” environmental impacts and narrows the definition of “major federal action.” House Republicans say both would narrow the scope of NEPA reviews.

The measure requires environmental analyses to be done within one year and more detailed environmental impact statements to be done within two years. If two or more agencies are involved, the bill directs that one be named lead agency and tasked with outlining a joint schedule. It also allows project applicants to sue if the timelines aren’t met. 

Project applicants will also be allowed to help prepare environmental reviews. The measure includes new language to clarify that agencies aren’t required to undertake new scientific or technical research as part of the review process.

“This is all about unlocking America’s resources,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-La. “This is about improving the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and not getting bogged down in the 115 lawsuits a year that are filed against NEPA taking on average three and a half years.”

Putting it more succinctly, Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, said that the “headline here is that fossil fuels win and the greenies lose.”

The Trump administration adopted many changes to NEPA in 2020 through the rule-making process, which the president then said was an effort to cut red tape. The Biden administration moved to reverse those changes shortly after taking office, finalizing what was effectively a rollback in April 2020.

But the White House accepted the latest changes, arguing that the legislation “makes these changes without curtailing the substantive scope of NEPA, cutting down the statute of limitations, imposing barriers to standing, or taking away injunctive relief or other judicial remedies.”

The changes drew opposition from environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Evergreen Action and the League of Conservation Voters, although these groups were divided on their support for the overall package that raised the debt ceiling but also outlined some spending cuts.

Some Democratic lawmakers voted for the bill while expressing their displeasure.

Others said the changes to NEPA, along with other provisions including the completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, made it impossible to support the bill. The MVP is a 303-mile pipeline to carry natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and has been a pet project of West Virginia’s two senators, Democrat Joe Manchin III and Republican Shelley Moore Capito.

House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the measure was just the latest move in a “decades-old, industry-funded partisan attack” on NEPA.

“NEPA is these communities’ strongest — and often their only — tool when it comes to protecting themselves against industry wrongdoing,” Grijalva said before the House vote Wednesday. “Rather than strengthen that tool, this bill gives polluters a shield, inevitably worsening an already unacceptable status quo.”

Grijalva said most delays in the permitting process are due to the lack of staff at the responsible agencies who can review applications and prepare the necessary reviews. The Biden administration, in a list of priorities released last month, said staffing should be part of a larger permitting overhaul package.

The White House also asked for a statutory requirement that agencies name a chief community engagement officer as well as other provisions that would ensure communities affected by a project would remain engaged during the permitting process.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said House leaders will work on permitting legislation that would include areas left unaddressed. Democratic members have urged for further action on transmission beyond the study, while members of both parties have proposed changes to hard-rock mining regulations.