Biden administration to restore climate criteria to landmark environmental law
By Lisa Friedman
The Biden administration announced earlier this week that it would restore climate change protections to the nation’s bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, which former President Donald Trump had weakened in an effort to speed the approval of projects like mines, pipelines, dams and highways.
The proposed changes would require the federal government to evaluate the climate change effects of major new projects as part of the permitting process. They come as Congress is weighing a plan to spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure improvements across the United States.
The Trump administration had freed agencies from considering the ways in which proposed new power plants or pipelines, for example, might lead to an increase of greenhouse gas emissions, which are warming the planet to dangerous levels. It required agencies to analyze only “reasonably foreseeable” effects. Trump said the change would eliminate “mountains and mountains of red tape” that he said had delayed projects across the country.
But those changes sowed confusion and were difficult to implement, according to Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help reduce conflict and litigation and help clear up some of the uncertainty that the previous administration’s rule caused,” she said in a statement.
Under the Biden administration’s proposed changes, agencies will have to consider the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of a decision — including assessing the consequences of releasing additional pollution in neighborhoods already burdened by dirty air.
“The basic community safeguards we are proposing to restore would help ensure that American infrastructure gets built right the first time and delivers real benefits, not harms, to people who live nearby,” Mallory said.
Prominent Democrats and environmental groups embraced the move.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, called it “a necessary first step,” to “better protect communities from polluted air and water, especially those communities that are already overburdened by the cumulative effects of multiple pollution sources.”
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the new rule would end legal uncertainty around the law. In June, a federal district court in Virginia dismissed a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against the Trump-era overhaul, but numerous other lawsuits are pending.
“At a time when we are on the precipice of passing a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure, the changes proposed today will improve certainty to avoid project slowdowns and litigation,” Carper said.
Some republicans and business leaders who supported Trump’s changes warned Wednesday that adding layers of review would hinder the development of badly needed projects, including the public transit and clean energy infrastructure that Biden and Democrats desire.
“By rolling back some of the most important updates to our antiquated permitting process, the Biden administration’s new proposed NEPA rule will only serve to slow down building the infrastructure of the future,” said Chad Whiteman, vice president for environment and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute.
The new rule also proposes giving federal agencies the authority to work closely with communities to develop alternative approaches to projects.
The National Environmental Protection Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, following several environmental disasters, including a crude oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and a series of fires on the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio.
The Biden administration is expected to publish its proposed rule in the Federal Register on Thursday and will take public comments on its plans for 45 days before issuing a final policy.