Utah officials praise Trump’s rollback of NEPA

(Evan Vucci | AP Photo) President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt speaks on proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Washington.

Washington • President Donald Trump announced Thursday his administration would streamline environmental reviews to speed up approval for projects from highways to pipelines to oil leases, a move that green groups quickly denounced as a continuation of the president’s willingness to pave and build rather than conserve and protect.

Trump said Thursday that a 50-year-old law called the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, would apply only to certain projects, and environmental reviews would be run simultaneously to ensure a fast-tracked process that slices through red tape he says is holding back important construction for years and even decades.

“The United States will not be able to compete and prosper in the 21st century if we continue to allow a broken and outdated bureaucratic system to hold us back from building what we need: roads, the airports, schools — everything right now,” Trump said standing in front of a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, whose presidency gave rise to the start of the modern conservation movement.

“We will not stop until our nation’s gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again,” Trump added. “It used to be the envy of the world and now we’re like a third-world country. It’s really sad.”

By narrowing the scope of NEPA, the Trump administration will curtail some of the current review process that can include multiple government agencies and gather extended public comments.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert praised Trump’s initiative.

“Environmental Protection is crucial, and a simpler, faster, and more certain process is a win for everyone,” Herbert tweeted after being asked for comment. “Taxpayers and the environment will both benefit from these changes.”

Pending likely court challenges, the Trump-ordered changes could speed up approval of oil and gas leases on federal land in Utah and the West as well as help push forward a planned pipeline to bring water from Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona state line to the arid desert of the growing St. George area.

The Bureau of Land Management last year pulled back scores of leases it had approved on federal land in Utah after a successful court challenge in a neighboring state held that the agency hadn’t considered impacts on the climate through its environmental reviews.

Trump’s order could hasten leasing those lands.

“In Utah, the Trump administration’s fast and furious drive to sell oil and gas leases has ignored the impacts that fossil fuel development will have on the climate crisis and BLM has rightly had to suspend and pull back in hundreds of leases sold over the past three years to conduct that analysis,” said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

“Under the proposed changes to NEPA, BLM could sell leases and approve development that the agency knows will fan the flames of climate change but not consider, analyze and disclose those impacts to the public,” Bloch continued. “If put into action, these changes will have disastrous consequences for Utah’s remarkable redrock wilderness.”

It could also mean the public and environmental groups would have fewer avenues to challenge projects before construction begins.

This is a serious punch to the gut for not just environmentalists but also the American public,” said Christy Goldfuss, a senior policy adviser at the Center for American Progress and former chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Barack Obama. “People are concerned about climate change and gutting the law that shares information about how the government is contributing to climate change is just a serious mistake and a serious slap in the face to the American public and what’s important to them."

Mary Neumayr, who heads the White House environmental council under Trump, countered earlier Thursday that the original goal of NEPA was to ensure a well-informed decision-making process but that it’s become “unnecessarily complex, burdensome and protracted.”

“A lengthy process can delay or even derail important projects to modernize our nation's infrastructure, manage our federal lands and waters and restore our environment,” Neumayr said at the White House announcement, adding that nothing in the changes would eliminate protections mandated by Congress to safeguard the environment.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler charged that the reformed process would also put a halt to some litigation that keeps projects dragging on.

“The NEPA process today is more about preparing documents for litigation than protecting the environment,” Wheeler said. “This streamlined approach to NEPA will free up countless career employees to focus more of their time protecting the environment instead of protecting the jobs of attorneys who sued to stop each and every project. NEPA was not meant to be a welfare program for trial attorneys.”

Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the top Republican on the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a statement that there has been nothing more detrimental “to the development of transportation, clean water, and energy infrastructure than America’s broken environmental review and permitting process.”

Bishop said the administration's changes bring “logic and rationality to the federal bureaucracy.”

“Reducing redundancies, enhancing coordination with states and tribes, clarifying ambiguous terms, and establishing time frames for the completion of paperwork is the 20/20 vision we needed,” Bishop said. “Fringe-left special interest groups will continue to scream bloody murder, but these actions by President Trump will ensure the government works better for all.”

Conservation groups didn't use the phrase “bloody murder,” though they did raise dire concerns about how narrowing environmental reviews could cause long-standing or irreversible damage.

“We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship,” said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Americans deserve to have their voices heard before their families’ health and well-being are put at risk by projects that bring unwanted and unnecessary pollution and disruption into their communities. While our world is burning, President Trump is adding fuel to the fire by taking away our right to be informed and to protect ourselves from irreparable harm.”

Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director of the Center for Western Priorities, said that when it comes to climate change, the Trump administration is “burying its head in an oil well” to ensure energy companies can “drill and mine every corner of our country.”

"Weakening our nation’s bedrock environmental law will only help drilling and mining corporations at the expense of local communities, clean water, and wildlife,” Prentice-Dunn said. “For three years, the Trump administration has done everything in its power to shut the public out, ignore the impacts of climate change, and ram new drilling and mining projects through the permitting process. Today’s announcement blatantly continues their track record of doing the oil and gas industry’s bidding.”

Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that if the changes take effect, more people will get sick from pollution, more money will be spent to rebuild ill-conceived projects and the climate will get worse. But he doesn’t expect the Trump orders to stand.

“The courts have been crystal clear that NEPA requires considering climate impacts, so this is just another inevitably doomed effort by this administration to try to illegally rewrite the rules it doesn’t like,” Grijalva said. “The president should do everyone involved a favor and hire more diligent lawyers.”