Trump’s order could speed major Utah projects by dodging some environmental reviews

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) This aerial photo from June 2018 shows where the inland port will be built.

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that lowers regulatory hurdles for major infrastructure and energy projects with the purported goal of jump-starting a pandemic-battered economy.

The order, inked late Thursday, lifts “to the fullest extent possible and consistent with applicable laws,” safeguards and procedures outlined in the nation’s bedrock environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

By waiving provisions for public comment and thorough analysis of environmental impacts, Trump’s move, if it withstands the legal challenges likely to follow, could speed approvals for numerous projects proposed in Utah. These include an oil-hauling railway, the Utah Inland Port, pipelines, highways, oil and gas leasing, drilling, coal mines, logging, vegetation-removal projects and transmission lines, as well as projects on the West Coast that would ship minerals extracted in Utah, such as coal and liquid natural gas export terminals.

Trump and his allies contend some environmental safeguards pose unnecessary obstacles to critical infrastructure projects to the detriment of the economy and jobs. Titled “Accelerating the Nation’s Economic Recovery from the COVID-19 Emergency by Expediting Infrastructure Investments and Other Activities,” Trump’s order blames “antiquated regulations and bureaucratic practices” for depressing employment in construction trades and thwarting the development of “world-class” infrastructure.

Under long-standing federal law, such projects are supposed to be subject to public comment and analyses of the harm they could cause to the environment and communities. Citing his emergency powers in the face of an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 110,000 Americans, the president is instructing federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Forest Service, to use whatever emergency authority is at their disposal to move projects from the drawing board to ground breaking. And it’s not just energy and infrastructure projects but also “environmental and natural resources projects on federal lands.”

Criticism was swift and intense.

“A public health crisis is not an excuse to drill, mine and pave our public lands, and the American people won’t fall for it,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for Center for Western Priorities. “This order will almost certainly increase environmental injustice across America. Pipelines, highways and mines have significant impacts on communities, particularly communities of color. This executive order will limit or eliminate the ability of those communities to have input on projects that put the health of children and seniors at risk.”

Likely making the list of projects to be fast-tracked is the proposed Uinta Basin Railway, now under review by the federal Surface Transportation Board.

This billion-dollar project, sponsored by a consortium of energy-producing Utah counties, would link the state’s oil patch with the national rail network.

Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition is pursing other projects that could see their regulatory hurdles lowered, but Executive Director Mike McKee was unsure how the executive order might affect them. He was not eager to see NEPA requirements short-circuited.

“The NEPA process is a good process. It is fair and ensures there is a balanced approach as these projects move forward,” McKee, a former Uintah County commissioner, said Thursday before the order was publicly available. “I think it can go too far in any direction. It’s important to make sure people have had an opportunity to weigh in, but I do want to see things done in a timely fashion.”

The coalition filed the papers to initiate a review on the rail project a year ago, and McKee expects the draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, to be released this summer.

Other projects the coalition is considering include an oil pipeline to a rail loading station in Wellington; a paved highway through the Book Cliffs connecting the Uinta Basin to Interstate 70 near Cisco; and a transmission line on Leland Bench in eastern Utah.

Trump’s order instructs agency heads to identify “planned or potential actions to facilitate the nation’s economic recovery” that could be subject “alternative arrangements” under NEPA, such as categorical exclusions or other exemptions. The agencies have 30 days to provide such a list and then must submit progress reports every 30 days “for the duration of the national emergency.”

Industry groups viewed the order as a positive step toward ensuring infrastructure projects are built with materials extracted and equipment produced in the United States.

“Smart permitting reforms will support increased use of the vast domestic mineral reserves we have right here at home, reversing the alarming mineral import reliance that has more than doubled in the last 25 years,” said Rich Nolan, the National Mining Association’s president and CEO. "Now is the time to rebuild the supply chains essential to our infrastructure, national security and the future health of our economy.”

Trump signed the order just days before the Bureau of Reclamation is to release a draft EIS on the Lake Powell pipeline, a controversial billion-dollar water project serving St. George. The document is expected to be posted Monday, opening a public comment period through Sept. 8, but the order could wind up narrowing opportunities for public participation.

Major projects not affected include the TransWest Express, a major power line crossing Utah to deliver wind-generated electricity from Wyoming to Las Vegas, which is already approved and slated for construction later this year.

While it does not involve federal land, the Utah Inland Port could be affected by Trump’s order, depending on how the Army Corps of Engineers implements it. Under development near the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, this project proposes a warehouse complex and possibly rail yards on wetlands, which are subject to federal protections under the Clean Water Act and permits issued by the Army Corps.

“We are worried,” said anti-port activist Deeda Seed, an organizer with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is hugely irresponsible to do this. These are processes put in place to protect human health and wildlife habitat. That it is happening when people are distracted with other threats and issues makes it all the more appalling.”