WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is restoring federal regulations that require rigorous environmental assessments of major infrastructure projects like highways, pipelines and oil wells — including likely impacts on climate change and nearby communities. The long-running reviews have been scaled back by the Trump administration to speed up projects and create jobs.
A rule finalized Tuesday will restore key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, a foundational environmental law designed to ensure community protection during the review of a variety of federal proposals, including roads, bridges and energy projects, included in the infrastructure bill signed by Biden of $1 trillion were approved last fall, the White House said.
The White House Environmental Quality Council said the new rule, which takes effect at the end of May, should resolve challenges created by Trump-era policies and restore public confidence in environmental assessments.
“Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict and help ensure projects get built right the first time,” said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory. “Closing these holes in the environmental assessment process will help ensure projects are built faster, are more resilient, and provide greater benefits to the people who live nearby.”
Former President Donald Trump revised environmental assessments in 2020 to speed up projects he said would boost the economy and create jobs.
Trump made cutting government regulations a hallmark of his presidency. He and his administration have often expressed frustration with rules they say unnecessarily slow permitting for interstate oil and gas pipelines and other large projects. The rule change imposed in 2020 limited deadlines for environmental reviews and public comment, and allowed federal officials to disregard a project’s role in cumulative impacts like climate change.
The new rule comes as the Supreme Court reinstated a separate Trump-era rule that limits the powers of states and Native American tribes to block pipelines and other energy projects that can pollute rivers, streams and other waterways.
In a decision that split the court 5-4 earlier this month, judges agreed to stop a lower court judge’s order overturning the Trump rule. The decision does not interfere with the Biden administration’s plan to rewrite the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule. Work on a revision has begun, but the administration has said a final rule is not expected until next spring. The Trump Era Rule, meanwhile, remains in effect.
Contrary to frequent claims by Trump and others in his administration, Mallory said more rigorous environmental assessment will actually speed up the completion of major projects because they are more likely to withstand legal challenge from environmental groups or states. Many Trump-era environmental decisions have been reversed or delayed by courts after they were found to have received insufficient analysis.
Environmental groups welcome the rule change
Environmental groups welcomed the rule change, which they say restores basic environmental protection under NEPA, a 1970 law that requires the government to accept public comments and consider environmental, economic and health impacts before approving any major project.
“NEPA plays a critical role in keeping our communities and environment healthy and safe, and clearly Donald Trump’s attempts to weaken NEPA were nothing more than handouts to corporate polluters,” said Leslie Fields, national director of Sierra Club Policy, Advocacy and Legal Affairs.
Environmental groups and African American, Latino and tribal activists had protested the Trump-era rule change, saying it would worsen pollution in areas already hit by oil refineries, chemical plants and other hazardous locations. The Biden administration has made addressing such environmental justice issues a key priority.
“Communities of color, in particular, have relied on NEPA to ensure their voices are heard in decisions that have a profound impact on their health and well-being,” said Rosalie Winn, a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, who challenged the Trump era rule.
The White House action “restores essential NEPA safeguards and ensures they continue to protect people and communities today and in future generations,” she said.
Business groups say the change will slow projects
Business groups and Republican lawmakers criticized the rule change, saying it would slow key infrastructure developments.
“Critical projects that address critical issues such as improving access to public transportation, bringing more clean energy to the grid and expanding broadband access are faltering due to sustained delays, and that needs to change,” said Chad Whiteman, Vice President of Environmental and Regulatory Affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce.
Arkansas Assemblyman Bruce Westerman, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said the White House action would “weaponize” NEPA by making it more difficult to navigate and more bureaucratic.
“At a time when we should be uniting around bipartisan ways to lower gas prices, tame skyrocketing inflation and fix the supply chain crisis, President Biden is unfortunately reinstating archaic NEPA regulations that only create delays and introduce bureaucracy and litigation with activists.’ He said.