President Joe Biden’s White House on Tuesday finalized its reversal of the Trump administration’s industry-friendly overhaul of one of America’s bedrock environmental laws.
The new rules from the White House Council on Environmental Quality restore key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, requiring federal agencies to once again evaluate climate impacts when reviewing pipelines, power plants, airports and other infrastructure projects.
“Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict, and help ensure that projects get built right the first time,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory said in a statement. “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.”
NEPA is a 50-year-old law that protects air, water and land by requiring federal regulators to conduct detailed environmental assessments of major infrastructure projects. The Trump-era changes, finalized in 2020, were the first major update to the law in more than four decades, part of a broad administrative effort to fast-track energy projects and other development. Along with allowing agencies to ignore climate impacts, the rewrite largely cut out the public from the environmental review process.
Critics condemned the Trump administration’s overhauls as an attack on environmental justice, as NEPA is a primary avenue for communities, often composed of low-income individuals and people of color, to oppose projects that could endanger the environment and public health.
Under the Biden administration’s new rule, agencies must account for all environmental impacts, including how greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution could further harm communities already suffering from disproportionate environmental effects. The rule also “restores the full authority of agencies to work with communities to develop and analyze alternative approaches that could minimize environmental and public health costs.”
The White House said the rules unveiled Tuesday are the first of two phases of regulations to strengthen the environmental law.
Environmental groups were quick to applaud the move. Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress, called it “a critical first step in rolling back changes made under the previous administration that undermined public input and scientific integrity.”
“Now, it’s time to urgently move to the next phase in restoring protections for the environmental review process,” she said. “That means making sure the process is clear, effective, and inclusive so that President Biden’s planned buildout of clean energy capacity can continue smoothly.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the corporate lobby with a long history of opposing climate regulations, warned that the changes would only add to an already burdensome infrastructure approval process.
“With rapidly rising inflation, major supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages, the last thing our country needs is unnecessarily extensive and duplicative bureaucratic red tape and delayed project approvals,” Marty Durbin, the chamber’s senior vice president of policy, said in a statement.
Tuesday’s announcement comes as many climate and environmental advocates are growing increasingly frustrated with Biden’s record on climate. In a call with reporters on Monday, a senior administration official criticized the media and pundits, saying they have sought to declare Biden’s climate agenda dead.