Industry groups including oil and gas trade associations were quick to pile on the praise following President Trump’s announcement Thursday, January 9 of major overhauls to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The 50-year-old bedrock environmental statute requires federal agencies to review the environmental impacts of major actions or projects, and has been a key tool for advocacy groups to challenge harmful infrastructure, from fossil fuel pipelines to chemical plants.
And in the Trump administration’s hasty efforts to assert “energy dominance,” judges have halted fossil fuel projects on grounds that the government did not adequately consider how those projects contribute to climate change.
For the fossil fuel industry, these court rulings, and the environmental law underpinning them, are an annoying setback. The industry has long been irked by NEPA, especially when it is used to delay petroleum-related projects because of climate concerns. In 2010, for example, the American Petroleum Institute commented in a blog post on the Bureau of Land Management delaying an oil and gas lease sale following a NEPA lawsuit that required the agency to study the leases’ climate impacts. “API hopes the review can be done quickly and allow the sale to be held later this year,” API wrote. “Furthermore, API believes that neither NEPA, nor other administrative tools, should be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.”
On Thursday, the Trump administration announced major revisions to the NEPA statute that shrink the scope and timeline of environmental review. Under new regulations proposed by the Center for Environmental Quality, the White House agency that implements NEPA, “cumulative effects” — such as how fossil fuel expansion contributes to climate change — would not need to be considered.
The Trump Administration’s NEPA rollback is a sellout of clean air, clean water and our climate to corporate polluters.
We cannot factor out climate change as we prepare for the future. #ClimateActionNow https://t.co/paKwIIopJ3
— Rep. Joe Neguse (@RepJoeNeguse) January 9, 2020
The term “effects” is clarified to exclude “effects that the agency has no authority to prevent or would happen even without the agency action.” This essentially eliminates climate change from being a concern that agencies must consider under NEPA. The proposed regulations also facilitate “efficiency” by encouraging categorical exclusions (meaning more projects will not even have to undergo review) and by setting time limits of two years maximum to complete reviews, regardless of the project’s complexity.
Fossil Fuel Promoters Cheer NEPA Changes
Groups representing fossil fuel interests celebrated the announcement. “Reforming the NEPA process is a critical step toward meeting growing demand for cleaner energy and unlocking job-creating infrastructure projects currently stuck in a maze of red tape,” API President and CEO Mike Sommers said. API is the nation’s largest oil and gas trade group.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) lauded the decision, while also disparaging environmentalists’ efforts to invoke the law. “IPAA is pleased that the Administration continues to tackle substantial projects, such as their effort to return the NEPA process to the original intent and scope of the law,” said Dan Naatz, senior vice president of Government Relations and Political Affairs at IPAA. “Although IPAA and our members recognize the important role NEPA plays in public land policy, for many years we have seen the law being abused by environmentalists with extreme agendas to delay and halt various multiple-use activities on federal lands, including oil and gas production.”
American Energy Alliance (AEA) president Thomas Pyle, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, also alleged that environmentalists have abused NEPA. “Radical environmental groups have twisted the intent behind NEPA and leveraged the legal system to their advantage in a coordinated effort to slow and stop progress and I welcome the news that President Trump plans stop them in his commitment to make America great again,” Pyle said. AEA is the advocacy arm of the nonprofit Institute for Energy Research, whose funding has included API, Koch family foundations, and ExxonMobil.
Another big win and we’re only in the second week of January. https://t.co/rf0hZYQz4o
— American Energy Alliance (@AEA) January 10, 2020
The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), whose members include companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron and which in 2017 launched an initiative attacking climate liability lawsuits, also applauded the NEPA overhaul announcement. NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons was at the White House on Thursday supporting the president.
A statement from Timmons following this announcement mentions a NAM blueprint for infrastructure improvements that specifically called for overhauling NEPA. “The NAM’s Building to Win infrastructure plan called for exactly this type of modernization — because our efforts should be used for building the infrastructure Americans desperately need, not wasted on mountains of paperwork and endless delays,” Timmons said. This remark reveals that industry groups have been gunning for NEPA reforms for a while. NAM’s “Building to Win” strategy was first released in 2016.
Law Changes on the Industry Wishlist
In 2018, groups like IPAA and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Association (AFPM) submitted comments as part of CEQ’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding updating NEPA regulations. These groups complained that the current NEPA process is excessively burdensome and costly — concerns that President Trump and CEQ head Mary Neumayr repeated on Thursday — and they made recommendations like limiting the scope of NEPA analyses that CEQ readily adopted.
But industry trade associations did not limit their NEPA demands to formal comment periods. In November of last year, a coalition of 33 organizations wrote a letter to CEQ urging the agency to “expeditiously proceed with revisions to modernize NEPA implementing regulations.”
The Dakota Access pipeline being installed between farms, as seen from 50th Avenue in New Salem, North Dakota, in 2016. Credit: Tony Webster, CC BY–SA 2.0
A few weeks later, the National Petroleum Council, an advisory organization made up of oil and gas executives and other petroleum stakeholders, issued a report on “America’s Evolving Oil and Natural Gas Transportation Infrastructure.” The report notes that “NEPA has become a leading basis for challenging agency decisions affecting energy infrastructure,” and calls for significant clarification and overhaul of NEPA.
President Trump has now delivered on the industry groups’ demand to weaken a key environmental law. “Today, we’re taking another historic step in our campaign to slash job-killing regulations and improve the quality of life for all of our citizens,” the president said at the announcement.
Democrats and Green Groups Bash Rule Changes
Environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers slammed the proposal, saying it would hurt citizens and that real beneficiaries are the polluting industries seeking to expedite harmful projects.
“Today’s action is nothing more than an attempt to write Donald Trump’s climate denial into official government policy,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. “Communities across the country are already feeling the effects of climate change, but rather than protect them, Trump is pulling out all the stops to silence their voices and further prop up his corporate polluter friends.”
“The Trump administration would allow powerful industries, like oil and gas extractors, to run roughshod over community interests,” added Dr. Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The planned NEPA rollback may be the most dangerous attack yet on our health, clean water, and climate.
Trump’s attack on a bedrock environmental law is not a ‘reform’, but another sellout of our clean air and water to corporate polluters.
— LCV – League of Conservation Voters (@LCVoters) January 8, 2020
Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) weighed in on the announcement with a statement under the headline, “Trump Caves to Fossil Fuels in Roll-Back of Bedrock Environmental Protection Law.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) also called out the fossil fuel industry’s influence. “We didn’t need more proof that the fossil fuel industry has hardwired the Trump administration to deliver on its interests, but we got it anyway,” Whitehouse said.
While industry is cheering the announcement, the actual changes to NEPA may be a ways off. The public has until March 10 to comment on CEQ’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and CEQ still has to hold public hearings on the proposed changes. Lawsuits challenging the regulations are also likely.
“We will use every tool in our toolbox to stop this dangerous move and safeguard our children’s future,” Natural Resources Defense Council president, and former EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy said.
Main image: President Donald Trump announces the proposed changes to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations Thursday, January 9, 2020. Credit: White House/Shealah Craighead, public domain