Trump Proposes Significant Rule Changes to Federal Agency NEPA Reviews

In early January, the Trump administration proposed the largest changes to the federal regulations enacting the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)[1] since it was first legislated approximately 50 years ago.

NEPA is a federal environmental law that requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of any agency actions. NEPA does not require an agency to consider the least environmentally impactful alternative. Instead, NEPA is a procedural statute that requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts and consider alternatives. The procedures required by the current regulations can be cumbersome, particularly for complicated projects that require consultation between multiple federal agencies. As a result, the documentation and procedures necessary to comply with NEPA can take years. The White House estimates that the average time to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)[2] is estimated at 4.5 years, although the NEPA process is substantially shorter for projects with minimal impacts (that only require an Environmental Assessment [EA]) or that are not expected to have an environmental impact (and are eligible for a Categorical Exclusion).

In response, President Trump’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)[3] proposed changes to NEPA, with a stated goal of streamlining the process and facilitating approval of infrastructure projects. But environmental groups worry that the changes will substantially weaken the impact of the law, threatening wildlife and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed changes are wholesale and include limits on the applicability of NEPA, the breadth of the environmental review, and the depth of any analysis. Some of the major proposed changes include:

The proposed changes have received substantial attention from environmental groups opposing the changes and industry trade groups supporting the changes. As a result, it is likely that the final rule will be challenged in federal court.

About the Author: Nathaniel Morse

Endnotes:
  1. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-national-environmental-policy-act
  2. Environmental Impact Statement (EIS): https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/publications/teaching-legal-docs/teaching-legal-docs--what-is-an-environmental-impact-statement-/
  3. Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ): https://www.whitehouse.gov/ceq/

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