White House would reduce environmental requirements for infrastructure projects

Washington • The White House has drafted a proposal to scale back environmental requirements in an effort to make it easier to construct roads, bridges and pipelines across the country as part of an infrastructure plan that President Donald Trump could release as soon as next week, according to a document obtained by The Washington Post.

The plan would change things such as how officials decide a pipeline route, how a proposed border wall with Mexico would be built and whether the National Park Service could object to a development that would impair tourists' views from scenic parks such as the Grand Canyon.

Administration officials — who have briefed GOP lawmakers, multiple trade associations and other groups about their plans — have emphasized they are willing to alter elements of the legislative package to win enough votes to pass it in the Senate. But they have made it clear they are seeking to make the most sweeping changes in decades to how the federal government approves and oversees infrastructure projects.

"We have no intention of eroding environmental protections," said Alex Hergott, associate director of infrastructure at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, when he addressed the Transportation Research Board's annual conference earlier this month. "However, there is no denying that there is duplication and redundancy in the process that is worth taking a hard look at."

A White House official on Friday described the document as an earlier "discussion draft." But individuals familiar with the plan said many of the proposals are still the basis for negotiations with lawmakers.

"Smarter regulation doesn't mean that we are abandoning our responsibility to the environment," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing internal deliberations.

Trump identified an infrastructure bill as a top priority for his first 100 days in office, but it was delayed while he focused on bruising legislative battles over health care and tax cuts. Aides say the president will pitch his plan during next week's State of the Union address and flesh out the details shortly afterward.

Critics of the administration said the proposal, outlined in the document, would gut key environmental protections enshrined in laws dating back to the 1970s, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

"The administration's legislative outline for infrastructure sacrifices clean air, water, the expertise of career agency staff and bedrock environmental laws," National Parks Conservation Association President and CEO Theresa Pierno said in an email. "In short, the proposal reveals that this administration is not serious about restoring America's infrastructure."

Trump has argued that voluminous environmental studies should be pared down to "a few simple pages," and he has made broad declarations about how easy and productive the world would be without complex regulations.

Now, his allies said, the administration is crafting proposals that will convert the president's words into actions.

"Clearly they are trying to get these things built more quickly. That can be done while maintaining the necessary environmental protections, because a lot of what holds this up is needless, duplicative review," said Nick Goldstein, vice president of regulatory and legal issues at the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. "From now until at least 2020, there's going to be somebody there considering regulatory reform."

The White House plan identifies many aspects of the current permitting process that lead to delays, including the fact that multiple agencies often weigh in on the same permit and that the federal government lacks resources to assess projects in a timely manner. To address this, it would make major changes in the arcane procedures that lie at the heart of federal oversight.

New limits and deadlines would be imposed on federal agencies reviewing projects, and in some cases agencies — especially the Environmental Protection Agency — could be limited in their ability to weigh in on the permitting process.

The dozens of proposals, many esoteric, are meant to amplify each other so they pack a bigger cumulative punch. One, for instance, would make it much easier for federal agencies to declare that certain projects have no significant impact on the environment and are not required to undergo further study. Such declarations — known as "categorical exclusions" — are already widely used, easing the approval of many highway and other projects.

The Trump proposal would allow federal agencies to piggyback on other agencies' decisions about the kinds of projects that should be exempt from deeper environmental study to "reduce duplication and unnecessary environmental analysis." Another would exempt any of these rulings from judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act, a law outside groups often use to challenge regulatory rollbacks.

It would also expand the government's ability to have private firms pay for the environmental reviews conducted by federal officials of their own projects. Any such change would "include appropriate controls for potential conflicts-of-interest."

Keith Benes, an environmental consultant who played a key role in overseeing TransCanada's permit application for the Keystone XL pipeline as a State Department attorney-adviser, said in an interview that the document highlights some significant problems in the current system. But in almost every instance, he noted, it simply eliminates a legal requirement that delays federal approval for projects.

“It's not, ‘Let’s streamline it or make it more effective,” Benes said. “’It’s just, ’Let’s get rid of that.’”

In several instances the plan limits the extent to which the EPA can weigh in or block a project from going forward. In doing so, it could allow one particularly aggressive, pro-development corner of the federal bureaucracy set a standard for the government as a whole.

The proposal would eliminate EPA's ability to evaluate another agency's Environmental Impact Statement, a power which it invoked during the Obama administration's first term to stall approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. It also aims to "eliminate duplicative oversight" by abolishing EPA's authority to "veto" a project on the grounds that it poses too grave a risk under the Clean Water Act.

EPA used this authority in 2014 to block construction of a massive gold and copper mine near Alaska's Bristol Bay. Under Trump, the EPA reached a settlement with the mine's sponsor, Pebble Limited Partnership, and is now allowing the firm to apply for federal permits.

"What happened at Pebble, in terms of the preemptive veto approach that EPA used, sent a chill down throughout the mining community, and investors," said Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, in a recent interview.

The plan would also give the Interior secretary the right to approve rights of way for natural gas pipelines to cross national park lands, a move that currently requires congressional authorization. Another, if enacted, would have blocked the environmental review that held up construction of a drinking-water pipeline through the Mojave Desert under Obama.

The administration has already made at least one major change in its plan to address objections raised by conservationists. The draft obtained by the Post includes several provisions that would substantially change Endangered Species Act requirements, such as "providing more flexibility" for meeting legal deadlines for listing imperiled species and delegating the responsibility for crafting a habitat conservation plan to the states.

Those changes are no longer in the White House plan, according to an individual who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

A White House official said the draft was from "a much earlier stage in the policymaking process than where we are at right now and should not at all be considered as Administration policy."

Besides streamlining permitting, the administration hopes to spur additional investment by state and local governments and the private sector in a broad array of infrastructure projects, including roads, bridges, rail lines, airports, waterways and broadband.

Administration officials have said publicly for months that they think $200 billion in federal money over the next decade could spur at least $800 billion more in spending by local governments and the private sector. More recently, Trump has offered a higher number, saying he believes the total new spending could exceed $1.7 trillion dollars in the coming decade.

Part of the federal funding would be used to reward states and localities that raise taxes or other revenue to fund infrastructure in their jurisdictions. The White House also is looking at grants for new projects in rural areas and money for "transformational" work such as plans to build tunnels for high-speed trains.

In its last budget proposal, the White House said the government's $200 billion share could be partly funded by cutting programs elsewhere. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has urged the White House to consider an increase of 25 cents per gallon in the federal gas tax to help pay for the federal commitment.