The Trump administration is rolling back major environmental protections that require the US government to comprehensively analyze how proposed projects like pipelines and highways affect surrounding communities.
Trump announced the changes on Wednesday afternoon from a UPS airport hub in Atlanta, where he backed the widening of commercial truck lanes on Interstate Highway 75. The White House said projects like the Atlanta expansion would have taken seven years to permit and now should take less than two years.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality finalized the changes to the regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (Nepa), which the Republican president Richard Nixon signed into law in 1970. The new rules reduce the number of projects subject to review, narrow the scope of reviews and exclude effects related to climate change from being considered significant.
“For decades, the single biggest obstacle to building a modern transportation system has been the mountains and mountains of bureaucratic red tape in Washington DC,” Trump said.
Less than 1% of projects funded or permitted by federal agencies require full environmental impact statements under the law. But those that do are significant.
Before Nepa, “you could wake up one day and see half your neighborhood bulldozed,” said Caitlin McCoy, a staff attorney for the Environmental & Energy Law Program at Harvard. In 1956, the federal government demolished hundreds of houses in an African American neighborhood in St Paul, Minnesota, to make room for Interstate 94.
“We’ve spent so much time talking about the Trump administration’s ‘rollbacks’, and most of that has been focused on how the Trump administration has sought to undo regulations that were put in place under the Obama administration … but this one is really significant because these regulations have been in place since 1978 and only small changes have been made over the years,” McCoy said.
“It shows how far the Trump administration is willing to go and how emboldened they feel three and a half years in.”
The Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines have both faced indigenous-led opposition and lawsuits alleging violations of Nepa, which have slowed their development.
The DC district court recently ordered the Dakota Access pipeline to shut down while an environmental impact statement is prepared. The court ordered additional study in response to legal challenges from the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, which contend the pipeline could risk an oil spill that would pollute the water they rely on for fishing, drinking and religious practices.
Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in Montana in 2018 was also halted by a court ruling that there had been insufficient Nepa analysis. Some work on the pipeline is now on hold after a court revoked its water-crossing permit because of concerns for endangered species.
Matt Hil, spokesman for the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, said Trump was attempting to “destroy a bipartisan, cornerstone law” to distract from not fulfilling his campaign promise to pass major infrastructure legislation.
“While Donald Trump distracts and destroys, Joe Biden has laid out clear and concrete steps to create millions of good paying union jobs, achieve environmental equity and justice, and ensure America builds back better,” Hill said.
Lisa Ramsden, a Greenpeace USA senior climate campaigner, said “the Trump administration’s anti-environment agenda is a racist agenda,” and “dismantling Nepa is a blatant attempt to silence the working-class communities of color who are resisting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure into their communities”.
The environmental group Earthjustice said the changes would “open the door for the government to exempt pipelines, large-scale logging operations, waste incinerators, smog-spewing highways, and countless other federal actions from environmental review or sharply limit local communities’ ability to participate in the environmental decision-making process”.
But the American Petroleum Institute, the trade group for oil and gas companies, applauded Trump’s changes. CEO Mike Sommers said they would “jumpstart not only the modernized pipeline infrastructure we need to deliver cleaner fuels but highways, bridges and renewable energy”.