Biden Reinstates Rule Requiring Environmental Review for Projects
WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday announced it is restoring provisions of a 1970 law that requires formal review of projects for their environmental impact before they can go forward.
The Trump administration had abolished the need for the pre-construction assessments.
Biden administration officials said the reinstated National Environmental Policy Act regulations would most likely be applied to the pipelines, highways and other infrastructure projects that are a core part of the president’s $1 trillion infrastructure program for economic stimulus.
The rule published this week in the Federal Register says regulators must now explain in pre-construction reports whether projects will add to climate change and how they would impact communities before they can win final approvals.
“In many respects, [the National Environmental Policy Act] was a statute ahead of its time, and it remains relevant and vital today,” the rule says. “It codifies the common-sense and fundamental idea of ‘look before you leap’ to guide agency decision making.”
The policy represents a tough balancing act for President Joe Biden as he tries to fulfill his promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while halting runaway inflation and risks of recession.
Former President Donald Trump’s main goal in eliminating many of the environmental review procedures was to get rid of the red tape that slows projects and the economic benefits they produce. Unlike the rule announced this week, Trump’s policy did not consider indirect environmental impacts of infrastructure projects.
Industry groups are warning the new policy will raise their costs and delay projects. They also say it could make the United States more dependent on foreign oil by interfering with the oil industry’s ability to obtain drilling permits.
The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, said in a statement, “Once again, the administration’s policy actions aren’t matching their rhetoric regarding the need for more American energy production.”
The Biden administration denied the allegation.
“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,” Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, said in a statement.
The new rule also won praise from Biden’s allies, such as House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.
“The previous administration stripped and gutted [National Environmental Policy Act] protections, effectively blocking federal agencies from taking climate change and public input into account when they make major decisions that affect our environment and the health of our communities,” Grijalva said in a statement.
The tributes Biden won for the revamped climate policy come only days after environmentalists criticized him for his announcement of a plan to sell oil and gas leases to petroleum companies.
They said the leases that would open 144,000 acres of public land to oil and gas extraction would contribute to global warming.
Biden said gasoline prices that have shot up past $4 a gallon and economists’ warnings about recession left him little choice.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki referred to Biden’s dilemma in allowing the leases Monday at a press conference when she said, “One of the reasons that this was so troubling to him is because he is so committed to [reducing climate change],” Psaki said. “And we continue to propose, have continued to propose, a historic investment in addressing the climate crisis, something that we will continue to discuss with Congress.”
Hints of Biden’s plan for making the entire U.S. electrical grid operate on renewable energy by 2035 could be found in the new rule.
It requires agencies to consider direct, indirect and cumulative effects on the environment of their actions and the projects they approve. They also are given more discretion to consider environmentally friendly options and to enforce their own stricter procedures for environmental assessments.
The new rule and policy now must withstand a court challenge and uncooperative Republicans in Congress.
In February, coal mining companies argued before the Supreme Court that the Environmental Protection Agency is exceeding its authority with regulations intended to push coal-fired electrical generators out of the nation’s power grid. Electrical generation is the second biggest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The coal companies in the case of West Virginia v. EPA argued their case before a Supreme Court that is more conservative now than when it halted an Obama administration program to dramatically reduce power plant emissions by 2016. The court’s ruling is expected in late spring or early summer.
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