President Joe Biden has ambitious plans to “build better” by spending trillions of dollars on higher infrastructure projects. At the same time, his administration seeks to reverse regulatory reforms that sought to speed up the delivery of those projects.
Late last week, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced that it wanted to undo the previous president’s changes to the rules governing the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Passed in 1969, the NEPA required federal agencies to study the environmental impact of the measures they took, whether to finance new highways or approve new pipelines. Over the decades, the burden imposed by NEPA has grown: the environmental reviews that point to it take years to develop and can run hundreds if not thousands of pages.
The Donald Trump administration tried to make things a little easier by limiting the environmental impacts that organizations had to examine, and by limiting the time and page on NEPA reviews.
Even those marginal changes, which were implemented in September 2020, proved controversial to many environmentalists. Their concerns have resonated with the Biden administration.
“The basic community protections we are proposing to restore will help ensure that American infrastructure is properly built for the first time and will not cause actual damage to nearby residents,” said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory on Thursday.
Proposed rules published by CEQ Federal Register Will bring several changes.
Most importantly, it will restore the need for agencies to consider NEPA reviews considering the indirect and additive effects of projects.
Short-term Trump changes say agencies typically don’t have to study the effects of projects that are “distant in time, geographically distant, or the product of a long-chain chain”. According to the Biden administration, those narrow requirements prevent companies from accurately calculating the effects of long-term climate change.
The Trump administration’s NEPA reforms treat CEQ rules as a ceiling, meaning finance companies can’t impose their own additional requirements. The Biden administration will instead consider the CEQ rules as a floor, giving agencies the power to review things that are outside the council’s requirements.
Environmental groups have generally praised these changes.
The Sierra Club announced last week, “It is important to restore the obligation to consider direct, indirect and increasing emissions in order to reflect the effects of climate and environmental justice.” “Reviews that do not address the indirect and added effects of fossil fuel projects (such as coal mines, gas leases, pipelines) miss 95% of climate emissions and their impact on communities.”
Other NEPA experts are more critical, arguing that it is an ineffective and potentially unfavorable way to tackle climate change.
“It’s just a little bit more paperwork,” said Eli Durado, a senior research fellow at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. “Given the world’s abundant infrastructure and the need to create new technologies and physical materials, NEPA is probably undermining our response to climate change.”
In fact, NEPA has slowed down a number of projects that environmentalists would generally support for their emissions-reduction potential.
The decision by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to analyze a combined impact of a large wind farm built off the coast of Massachusetts in 2019 under the NEPA has significantly delayed that project.
Similarly the federal government’s NEPA-directed review will take several years to allow drivers to enter lower Manhattan to take tolls. Environmentalists and transit advocates have generally praised the congestion pricing plan to reduce carbon emissions and raise money for public transit. The tolls were supposed to be introduced in January 2021. The need to conduct an environmental assessment for the project would mean that it will not start until 2023 as soon as possible now.
The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress want to finance all additional green investments with their 1 1 trillion infrastructure bill and 3.5 3.5 trillion build-back better, with similar consequences.
“It’s creating some infrastructure projects that they want to make radically more expensive,” said Neil Chilson, senior research fellow at Stand Together. He said regulatory changes would also give NIMBYs in the country the ability to slow down projects they dislike.
The NEPA process allows third parties to file complaints with federal agencies claiming that the environmental impacts of a project have not been adequately studied. Once that allegation is raised, the agency must decide whether it has any qualifications.
“This process takes forever,” Chilson said, “during which time the project’s sponsors were prevented from moving forward with what they were trying to create. The NEPA allows third parties to sue for presumably inadequate environmental reviews, which can drag things out for even longer.
By increasing the number of implications that need to be considered in the NEPA process, opponents of the Biden administration project are claiming that environmental review is inadequate.
Chilson said federal agencies and private project sponsors need to spend more time creating reciprocal litigation-related environmental documents.
This could be particularly detrimental to the proposed solar plants to be built on public land in the American West, which has drawn strong opposition from endangered species and local groups concerned about their impact on recreational lands.
The White House is not getting rid of every Trump NEPA reform. The new rules do not touch the requirements that the environmental assessment should not exceed 75 pages and the environmental impact statement should not exceed 300 pages. The “shot clock” requirement that these reviews be completed within one to two years is also in place.
The CEQ says reversing those Trump-era changes is only the first step in formulating its planned rules. In the second phase, the administration says, it plans to make more effective changes that create “effective and efficient environmental reviews.”
“This opens up the possibility that we will get more productive reforms later,” Durado said.
“No one is saying that everything is okay with allowing the world. I hope [the administration] There are at least some constructive ideas on how to improve permitting, ”he said Because.
The average environmental impact statement – the most rigorous level of review set by NEPA – took 4.5 years to complete and ran about 669 pages. It is 2.2 years in the decade of 1 up0.
Durado believes the federal government should extend the use of clear boycotts that allow projects to avoid the NEPA process altogether. Chilson says if Congress wants to bring back more NEPAs, it will have to take more comprehensive steps – which he thinks could go much further than just infrastructure projects.
Everything from the approval of new vaping products to the forest management program has to go through the NEPA process. Each year, federal agencies produce approximately 176 environmental impact statements and 10,000 environmental assessments (a less difficult version of the NEPA review that can still take years).
“It’s been widely explained, and since the federal government has a hand in approving so many things, a lot of what would otherwise be a personal change now involves the NEPA and all the red tape that comes with it,” Chilson said.
Sense. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Kevin Kramer (R-ND) have proposed a package of bills that will permanently integrate the NEPA process. The infrastructure bill passed by the Senate includes an extension of some temporary NEPA streamlining measures.
Not all of the new infrastructure that Congress is spending, even the majority should be considered a wise investment. But Biden’s proposed NEPA changes only confirm that more federal money will be spent on red tape.