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Trump administration guts cornerstone environmental law to hasten federal construction projects

Revenge of Infrastructure Week

Trump administration guts cornerstone environmental law to hasten federal construction projects

A lane expansion project in Atlanta would be fast-tracked under Trump’s NEPA rollback. (Michael Rivera Wikimedia Commons)

In what’s being called the “single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” President Donald Trump has followed through with his pledge to roll back the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a landmark 1970 conservation law signed into existence by President Richard Nixon intended to force federal agencies to consider the potential environmental repercussions of major construction projects including the building of highways, pipelines, airports, power plants, and so on. Most importantly, the law currently demands full transparency surrounding said projects and gives impacted communities—more often than not, underserved communities and communities of color—the opportunity to voice their concerns before any plans are finalized.

“We’re reclaiming America’s proud heritage as a nation of builders and a nation that can get things done,” said Trump on Wednesday while visiting a United Parcel Service shipping hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. In his speech, Trump decried the “mountains and mountains of red tape” associated with moving major federal projects forward.

Whether they do come in the form of a mountain—as described by Trump in typically hyperbolic fashion—or as a modest hill that adds a few months (or more realistically, multiple years) to the proceedings at hand, the bureaucratic checks and balances mandated by NEPA are in place to protect natural ecosystems and the health and well-being of Americans living in the vicinity of potentially disruptive projects that could lead to upticks in air and water pollution. The need to move forward at a measured pace while analyzing the known and potential environmental impacts of large-scale, federally-funded projects have been made all the more vital by a swiftly changing climate.

Calling NEPA “a bedrock law that underpins our public health and environmental safeguards,” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, noted in a statement that: “NEPA has been one of the key tools that Americans, including Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color, have depended on to be heard in decisions that have a profound impact on their communities, their health and their well-being. Undermining NEPA would unjustly diminish the voices of those at risk at a time when it is imperative that we listen and engage genuinely and with great care.”

As reported by Bloomberg, Trump’s so-called “top-to-bottom” NEPA overhaul, which introduces a dramatically abbreviated timeframe for environmental review proceedings, impacts several in-progress projects. This includes a planned lane expansion of Interstate 75 in Georgia (a project that directly benefits the aforementioned UPS hub). By skirting the time-intensive environmental review process, the permitting of I-75 is expected to take two years instead of seven. Per the Washington Post, some projects would be allowed to circumvent environmental review processes altogether. (As they clarify, the Trump administration lacks the power to directly amend the law but can alter the rules concerning how NEPA is implemented).

The Trump administration has argued that by streamlining the go-ahead mechanisms for federal construction projects, the flailing American economy will be able to more quickly rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.

Referring to the finalized rollback of NEPA, as one of “the biggest—and most audacious—deregulatory actions of the Trump administration,” the New York Times notes that Republican lawmakers, construction companies, home builders, developers, and various figures in the oil and gas industry, have long complained of the leaden pace of the permitting process for projects.

Martin Durbin, president of the Department of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, praised Trump’s rollback as “a big step forward” that’s “about our nation maintaining its global competitiveness.”

However, some anticipate that the weakening of NEPA, which could potentially be reversed by Democrats next year under the Congressional Review Act, would lead to an even longer, more burdensome permitting process due to the increased potential for court litigation.

“Even though the president has said that he wants to make this process more efficient and effective, it’s going to make it even worse, because it’s going to create more litigation and uncertainty,” Sharon Buccino, senior director of the lands division at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg. “The controversy and the confusion around these projects is going to increase, rather than decrease.”

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who recently introduced a $2 trillion climate and clean energy plan, has pledged to undo any and all Trump-era environmental rollbacks.