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Trump Administration Proposes Landmark Changes to National Environmental Policy Act’s Review Process

HeadshotBy Matthew G. Lawson

CEQ SealMarking the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), on January 1, 2020, the Trump White House published a Presidential Message announcing the imminent release of newly proposed regulations designed to “modernize” the foundational environmental statute.  NEPA, which requires federal agencies to quantify and consider environmental impacts before undertaking actions that have the potential to “substantially impact” the environment, has far reaching applications. Under NEPA, federal agencies are often required to complete an Environmental Impact Assessment (“EIS”) prior to starting public infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and ports, or before permitting certain private actions that require federal approval, such as construction of pipelines or commencement of mining operations. According to the 2018 Annual NEPA Report, EISs drafted by federal agencies between 2010 and 2017 took an average of 4.5 years to complete. The Presidential Message asserts that the existing NEPA review process “has become increasingly complex and difficult to navigate,” while causing “delays that can increase costs, derail important projects, and threaten jobs for American workers and labor union members.” The regulations proposed by the Trump Administration are expected to be released by the Council on Environmental Quality (“CEQ”) later this week.

If enacted, the proposed regulations could mark the first comprehensive update to NEPA’s review process in more than four decades. According to accounts of a draft memo from CEQ outlying the proposed changes, the modifications will bring substantial changes to the NEPA review process, including:

  • requiring that all EISs be completed within a two-year time limit;
  • limiting the scope of projects that trigger the requirement to draft an EIS; and
  • in the case of private actions that require federal approval, allowing private companies to take lead in reviewing potential environmental impacts under the supervision of a federal agency.

Perhaps most critically, CEQ is expected to advise that federal agencies are no longer required to consider “cumulative” environmental consequences when accounting for the environmental impacts of a specific action. This language appears aimed at eliminating the requirement that federal agencies consider the impact of increased greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions and climate change as part of their NEPA review. The proposal comes after several high profile infrastructure projects back by President Trump, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline, were blocked by federal judges on the basis that the project’s EIS failed to sufficiently consider the impacts of climate change.

While the CEQ regulations have not been comprehensively revised since 1986, in recent years the Obama and Trump Administrations have independently sought to clarify the obligation imposed on Federal agencies to consider GHG emissions and climate change under NEPA. In 2016, the Obama Administration CEQ released guidance endorsing the view that NEPA requires federal agencies to consider and quantify any reasonably foreseeable GHG emissions that are attributable to a proposed action. However, this guidance was subsequently withdrawn by the Trump Administration CEQ in 2017, and replaced in June 2019 with draft guidance that cautioned agencies to only consider GHG emissions that were “substantial enough to warrant quantification” and not “overly speculative.” 

Once the CEQ’s newly proposed regulations are released and filed in the federal register, the public will be afforded 60 days to comment on the changes. From this point, the Trump Administration is aiming to publish the final regulations before the presidential election in November. However, before the new regulations can take effect, environmental groups are expected to challenge them in court proceedings.

TAGS: Air, Climate Change, Consumer Law and Environment, Sustainability, Water

PEOPLE: Matthew G. Lawson