Trump announces sweeping changes to key environmental law

Issam AHMED
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Workers build an oil pipeline in North Dakota in July 2013; the Trump adminstration is hoping to dilute environmental regulations for such major infrastructure projects

Workers build an oil pipeline in North Dakota in July 2013; the Trump adminstration is hoping to dilute environmental regulations for such major infrastructure projects (AFP Photo/Andrew Burton)

Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump's administration announced Thursday sweeping changes to an environmental law that critics said guts oversight requirements in the construction of highways, airports and pipelines and allows the government to ignore their impact on climate change.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970, all major infrastructure projects must be subject to environmental impact assessment by federal agencies.

NEPA was the US's first major environmental law and designed "to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony." It has proved an obstacle to Trump's efforts to accelerate fossil fuel extraction.

The Environment Protection Agency raised an objection to the Keystone XL pipeline, planned to bring oil from Canada to the US, during a NEPA review under the Obama administration, with the former president canceling the project as a result -- only for it to be revived under Trump.

The executive branch doesn't have the power to change the act of Congress, but, as it has previously done for the Endangered Species Act, it can change rules about how it is applied -- and it was these proposed changes that were announced Thursday.

Trump told reporters that he was acting because projects were being "tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process," adding he would not stop until "gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again."

- Raises threshold for assessment -

The proposals, which are subject to a 60-day review period for public comments before taking effect at a later date, would raise the threshold for what types of projects require an environmental impact assessment.

It would exclude projects financed in whole or in large part by the private sector, as is the case for a number of oil pipelines.

And federal agencies will be asked to complete their analyses in two years, compared to the four and a half years they are currently given, said Mary Neumayr, who heads the Council on Environmental Quality.

"Over time, implementation of NEPA has become increasingly complex and time consuming for federal agencies, state, local, and tribal agencies, project applicants, and average Americans seeking permits or approvals from the federal government," she said.

She added that the assessments for highway projects are taking more than seven years, and some studies stretch to longer than a decade.

- Legal challenges expected -

The administration also wants to remove requirements to examine the "cumulative" impacts of projects, something that would exclude the impact of climate change -- even though the proposal does not exclude consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in NEPA analyses, said Neumayr.

The definition of environmental impacts would be reduced to those that are "reasonably foreseeable" and have a "reasonably close causal relationship," while any changes must be "technically and economically feasible."

Environmental groups slammed the move and vowed to respond with legal challenges.

"Today's action is nothing more than an attempt to write Donald Trump's climate denial into official government policy," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

"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."