Biden beefs up federal requirement to assess environmental impact of infrastructure after dilution by Trump

By on 26/04/2022 | Updated on 26/04/2022
A group of protesters opposing the Keystone XL pipeline hold placards in Boston.
Plans for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline were shelved last year under NEPA. Photo by Kayana Szymczak courtesy of NoKXL via Flickr

President Joe Biden has restored key facets of a law that requires government agencies to assess the environmental consequences of major infrastructure projects, after they were dropped by his predecessor Donald Trump.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced last week that under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), federal agencies would have to “consider the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts” of projects such as the construction of power plants, roads, and oil and gas pipes.

This includes “fully evaluating climate change impacts and assessing the consequences of releasing additional pollution in communities that are already overburdened by polluted air or dirty water,” it said.

Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump introduced significant changes to the law in 2020, in what his administration said was a bid to cut red tape and speed up the approval process. His changes meant many projects were exempt from review and that federal agencies did not have to consider indirect climate consequences.

Read more: Biden urges US agencies to ‘restore integrity’ of federal watchdogs after Trump attacks

NEPA – which was introduced in 1970 – requires agencies to consult the public on planned infrastructure projects and allows officials to come up with alternative plans that would be less damaging to the environment and communities.   

CEQ said Trump’s changes “limited federal agencies’ ability to develop and consider alternative designs or approaches that do not fully align with the stated goals of the project’s sponsor, often a private company”. 

‘Unnecessarily extensive bureaucratic red tape’

While some have welcomed the Biden administration’s move to reintroduce safeguards, others argue that infrastructure projects will take longer to be delivered and cost more.

“I’m glad this administration recognises how egregiously wrong [Trump’s] actions were and is moving forward to restore the protections that have helped protect our environment while promoting sustainable development for decades,” said representative Raúl M. Grijalva, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, as reported by the Washington Post.

Marty Durbin, senior vice president of policy at the US Chamber of Commerce opposes Biden’s decision to reinstate parts of the law. “It should never take longer to get federal approval for an infrastructure project than it takes to build the project, but that very well may be the result of the administration’s changes,” he said, adding that “the last thing our country needs is unnecessarily extensive and duplicative bureaucratic red tape”.

CEQ chair Brenda Mallory rebuffed claims that the most recent changes would slow construction. “Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict, and help ensure that projects get built right the first time. Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help projects get built faster, be more resilient, and provide greater benefits to people who live nearby,” she said.

Further changes to the law are expected to follow. CEQ said it continues to “work toward proposing a set of broader Phase 2 changes” to NEPA which it said would help ensure full and fair public involvement in the environmental review process; meet the nation’s environmental, climate change, and environmental justice challenges; provide regulatory certainty to stakeholders; and promote better decision-making consistent with NEPA’s goals and requirements. 

NEPA is considered one of the nation’s most important environmental laws and has been a key tool for climate activists and community groups to oppose planned infrastructure. Similar legislation has been adopted by other countries.

Biden’s changes were initially proposed in October and will come into force next month.

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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