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By Valerie Volcovici and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON/ATLANTA (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced final plans to expedite permitting for infrastructure like oil pipelines and road expansions, a move that critics say will sidestep the need for public input, especially from low-income and minority communities.
The proposal to change how the 50-year-old bedrock National Environmental Policy Act https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-climate-nepa/white-house-unveils-plan-to-speed-big-projects-permits-idUSKBN1Z81IM (NEPA) is implemented is part of Trump’s broader campaign to curtail environmental regulations to boost industry and fast-track projects that can take years to complete.
Among other things, the final rule says that federal agencies need not factor in the “cumulative impacts” of a project, which could include its impact on climate change and have significant and long-lasting consequences.
"Today's action is part of my administration's fierce commitment to slashing the web of needless bureaucracy that is holding back our citizens," Trump said in a speech at the UPS Hapeville Airport Hub in Atlanta.
He said one major project that will get an expedited review is the I-75 lane expansion project from Atlanta to Macon, Georgia.
Trump's efforts have often been blocked or slowed down by the courts after lawsuits.
Just last week https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-pipelines/end-of-an-era-series-of-u-s-setbacks-bodes-ill-for-big-oil-gas-pipeline-projects-idUSKBN2491M5, a federal judge ordered the Dakota Access pipeline to shut down because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had failed to do an adequate NEPA impact study, and the Supreme Court blocked construction of the Keystone XL line from Canada pending a deeper environmental review.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) proposed the changes to NEPA in January, kicking off a public comment period. Officials had called the proposal "the most significant deregulatory proposal" of the Trump administration.
The final rule doesn't differ significantly from the draft proposal, which sets a two-year deadline for environmental impact statements and a one-year deadline for less stringent environmental assessments.
"This change means that reviews of big federal projects will ignore massive problems like climate change, even as some of our most important financial institutions warn of the threat it poses," said Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Senate environment committee.
Environmental groups also said that watering down NEPA deprives low income and minority communities, often in the shadow of large federal projects, of input.
"As COVID-19 and police brutality ravage Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities, the Trump administration’s perversion of the protections under NEPA deal another blow to these same communities," said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president of the liberal Center for American Progress.
Energy and other industry groups applauded the changes.
"The new rule updates ... regulations by reducing unnecessary paperwork, setting timelines for environmental reviews and reduces frivolous litigation efforts designed to simply stall or delay vital infrastructure projects," said Independent Petroleum Association of America President Barry Russell.
The CEQ received over 1 million comments after the January proposal, many of which opposed the changes and offered evidence that they could have "harmful results," said Caitlin McCoy, a staff attorney for the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program.
This could make the rule vulnerable in lawsuits, she said.
"CEQ will need to show that it grappled with these adverse comments and considered all of the important aspects of making these changes, otherwise aspects of the regulations could be ruled arbitrary and capricious," she said.
Environmental organizations have said they plan to sue the administration over its rule on the grounds that it has attempted to rewrite a U.S. law without congressional action.
“We have consistently defeated this administration’s relentless, vicious dismantling of safeguards for people and the environment, and we will do so again with this final rule,” said Susan Jane Brown at the Western Environmental Law Center.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Sonya Hepinstall)