President Joe Biden’s White House moved Wednesday to reverse the Trump administration’s shortsighted, industry-friendly overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act, one of America’s bedrock environmental laws.
NEPA is a 50-year-old law that protects air, water and land by requiring federal agencies to conduct detailed environmental assessments of major infrastructure projects. In 2020, the Trump administration changed how the federal government implements the law in order to fast-track energy projects and other development, limiting public input on such projects and allowing federal agencies to ignore climate change when reviewing them.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality on Wednesday announced steps to restore provisions that had been in place for decades prior to the Trump-era overhaul, including requiring agencies to consider all environmental impacts of a proposed project and providing the flexibility to work with communities to consider alternatives that would minimize harm.
“The basic community safeguards we are proposing to restore would help ensure that American infrastructure gets built right the first time, and delivers real benefits ― not harms ― to people who live nearby,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory said in a statement. “Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help reduce conflict and litigation and help clear up some of the uncertainty that the previous administration’s rule caused.”
The Trump-era changes were the first major update to the law in more than four decades. While the Trump administration presented it as a long-overdue “modernization” necessary to speed up permitting, critics saw it as a clear attack on environmental justice that largely benefited polluting industries. The NEPA review process has long been a primary avenue for communities, often low-income and communities of color, to challenge pipelines, power plants, airports and highways that pose potential risks to the environment and public health.
Biden’s White House said the rules proposed Wednesday are “Phase 1” of a broader effort to strengthen the environmental law.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, applauded Wednesday’s announcement as “a welcome first step in placing public health needs and the lives of Americans ahead of the profits of corporate polluters.”
“Today’s move begins the process of restoring environmental protections that stood for decades prior to the Trump administration,” he said in a statement. “Restoring these protections is a necessary first step toward even stronger NEPA protections that are needed to improve public input opportunities under NEPA and to better protect communities from polluted air and water, especially those communities that are already overburdened by the cumulative effects of multiple pollution sources.”