US President Joe Biden’s administration is restoring federal regulations that require rigorous environmental review of large infrastructure projects such as highways, pipelines and oil wells — including likely impacts on climate change and nearby communities.
The longstanding reviews were scaled back by the Trump administration in a bid to fast-track projects and create jobs.
A US rule finalised on Tuesday will restore key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law designed to ensure community safeguards during reviews for a wide range of federal proposals, including roads, bridges and energy projects authorised in the $1 trillion infrastructure law Biden signed in November, the White House said.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) said the new rule, which takes effect in late May, should resolve challenges created by the Trump-era policy and restore public confidence during environmental reviews.
“Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict and help ensure that projects get built right the first time,” said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory. “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.”
Former President Donald Trump overhauled the environmental reviews in 2020 in a bid to accelerate projects he said would boost the economy and provide jobs.
The rule change imposed that year restricted the timelines for environmental reviews and public comment and allowed federal officials to disregard a project’s role in cumulative effects, such as climate change.
Environmental groups and African American, Latino and Indigenous activists had protested the Trump-era rule change, saying it would worsen pollution in areas already reeling from oil refineries, chemical plants and other hazardous sites.
The Biden administration has made addressing such environmental justice issues a key priority.
The move comes as the Supreme Court reinstated a separate Trump-era rule that curtails the power of states and Native American tribes to block pipelines and other energy projects that can pollute rivers, streams and other waterways.
In a decision that split the court 5-4 earlier this month, the justices agreed to halt a lower court judge’s order throwing out the Trump rule. The decision does not interfere with the Biden administration’s plan to rewrite the Environmental Protection Agency regulation.
Contrary to frequent assertions by Trump and others in his administration, Mallory said a more rigorous environmental review will actually speed up the completion of crucial projects since they will be more likely to withstand a legal challenge by environmental groups or states.
Many Trump-era environmental decisions were reversed or delayed by courts after findings they did not undergo sufficient analysis.
Environmental groups hailed the rule change, which they said restores bedrock environmental protections under NEPA, a 1970 law that requires the government to accept public comments and take environmental, economic and health impacts into consideration before approving any major project.
“NEPA plays a critical role in keeping our communities and our environment healthy and safe, and Donald Trump’s attempts to weaken NEPA were clearly nothing more than a handout to corporate polluters,” said Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s national director of policy, advocacy and legal affairs.
The White House action “reestablishes essential NEPA safeguards and ensures they will continue to protect people and communities today and in future generations”, she said.
Business groups and Republican legislators criticised the rule change, saying it would slow down significant infrastructure developments.
“Important projects that address critical issues like improving access to public transit, adding more clean energy to the grid and expanding broadband access are languishing due to continued delays and that must change,” said Chad Whiteman, vice president for environment and regulatory affairs for the US Chamber of Commerce.