Trump CEQ rolls out plans for swift NEPA reviews

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, September 15, 2017

The White House released plans today aimed at hastening government environmental reviews of infrastructure projects — a major priority for the Trump administration that critics say will cause big problems.

The Council on Environmental Quality published a notice and a fact sheet announcing actions it plans to take to speed up reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.

CEQ called the current NEPA review process “fragmented, inefficient and unpredictable” and said its plans will “guide federal agency efforts to expedite federal reviews while maintaining existing environmental protections.”

NEPA reviews — long criticized by industry as unwieldy hurdles to infrastructure projects — have been a prime target for the Trump administration.

President Trump issued an executive order last month calling for “more efficient and effective federal infrastructure decisions.” He directed agencies to aim to complete environmental reviews within two years, to issue one decision that covers all agencies reviewing a project and to issue necessary permits within 90 days.

The president called on CEQ to develop a new framework for that process; the plans announced today are in response to his order.

CEQ intends to coordinate with other agencies to identify infrastructure projects that may qualify as high-priority, review existing CEQ rules for implementing NEPA, issue a “NEPA practitioners’ handbook” aimed at accelerating the review process, and form an interagency group to look at “impediments to the efficient and effective processing” of NEPA reviews.

Christy Goldfuss, who led CEQ under the Obama administration, called the plans released today “another step where the Trump administration is trying to shut the public out of the decisionmaking process” and another “representation of their sloppy policymaking.”

NEPA regulations “are a road map to getting the best information to make the best decision for the government,” said Goldfuss, who is now at the Center for American Progress. “By shortening timelines, by putting arbitrary page limits out there, you are predetermining what information is needed in a public process.”

The White House’s efforts to overhaul NEPA come as Trump has yet to nominate a leader for CEQ. Kathleen Hartnett White, a former Texas regulator who is now at a conservative think tank, has been considered the front-runner for months but hasn’t been announced as a nominee (Climatewire, July 5).

Goldfuss said, “It is hugely problematic that the agency responsible for regulating and implementing NEPA is empty. There’s no one home; there’s nobody there to advise how to do this.”

CEQ is now staffed by a small team of career employees and led by an acting Trump official, former House Republican staffer Mary Neumayr. She signed the notice released today.

The Trump administration has also taken steps at other agencies lately aimed at expediting NEPA reviews.

Citing a need to reduce “paperwork,” the Interior Department has imposed controversial new restrictions on the length of NEPA studies. Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt issued a memo last month directing that environmental impact statements “shall not be more than 150 pages or 300 pages for unusually complex projects” (Greenwire, Sept. 6).

EPA recently decided to move its NEPA review role from its enforcement shop into the policy shop within the administrator’s office. Some saw that move as an attempt to inject politics into the process, but EPA officials said it makes sense organizationally and would help streamline reviews (Climatewire, Sept. 6).

A career employee in EPA’s NEPA office told E&E News last week, “If we’re trying to reduce the overall cycle time, we have now consolidated under one office.”

The agency has already taken steps to streamline its NEPA reviews, that employee said.

“We’ve made a concerted effort across all 10 regions,” the employee said, to have NEPA commenters focus on the aspects or the impacts to resources that are within the EPA’s jurisdiction: in other words, not comment on the Endangered Species Act. EPA is working to “stay in our lane, have our comments be concise, so that agencies understand the deficiencies that we’re pointing out.”