The Biden administration announced Tuesday it reimplemented core protections to an environmental law on infrastructure projects, a climate-related regulation that former President Donald Trump had rolled back.
The 1970-era National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impact of proposed projects. The Trump administration had slashed such requirements in an effort to cut red tape and speed up the permitting process for construction.
The actions taken by President Biden mean that before ground can be broken for roads, pipelines and other infrastructure projects, government agencies once again will have to first consider the environmental impact, including greenhouse gas emissions and other indirect climate impacts; how poor and minority neighborhoods that have historically faced more pollution will be affected; and how to minimize environmental and public health costs.
The move is an example of how Mr. Biden has tried to advance his climate agenda in a piecemeal fashion with the executive powers amid stalled policies in Congress. The administration is in the midst of helping states and communities implement a $1 trillion infrastructure package that was passed last year.
But Mr. Biden also is facing an economy experiencing 40-year-high inflation, prompting him to break a campaign promise last week and open more federal lands to oil and natural gas drilling in an effort to blunt all-time high prices at the pump. The decision infuriated climate activists and some in his party.
A senior White House official pushed back against the notion that the restored NEPA regulations would jeopardize timely projects and increase costs, which Republicans are likely to argue.
“Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict and help ensure that projects get built right the first time,” said Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “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.”
Democrats and climate activists applauded the decision.
“The previous administration stripped and gutted NEPA protections, effectively blocking federal agencies from taking climate change and public input into account when they make major decisions that affect our environment and the health of our communities,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Arizona Democrat.
Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, applauded the move as one that will help “government accountability, better projects with more community buy-in and less litigation.”
The American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, slammed the NEPA rules as a threat to global energy security that would slow the permitting process and create new obstacles.
“Once again, the administration’s policy actions aren’t matching their rhetoric regarding the need for more American energy production, and we urge the administration to change course and establish a timely and efficient permitting process that supports the energy security needs of the U.S. and our allies overseas,” said Frank Macchiarola, API senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs.