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The Trump administration wants to roll back part of a seminal law requiring environmental impact statements for infrastructure projects such as roads, mines and pipelines. Industry has long pushed for these changes to reduce what it says are endless delays, but environmental groups argue the proposal would be disastrous for environmental protection. William Brangham talks to Amy Harder of Axios.
As we reported earlier, the Trump administration wants to roll back part of a bedrock environmental law to make it easier to build certain infrastructure projects, like roads, mines and pipelines.
As William Brangham reports, industry has long pushed for these changes to reduce what they argue are endless delays.
But environmental groups call this proposal a betrayal of the law's original intent.
Environmental reviews can seem arcane to many, but they can also be quite consequential.
Perhaps the most famous case in recent years was the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline. That battle has dragged out for years, and those environmental reviews were a crucial part of the debate.
Now the Trump administration is proposing to overhaul the 50-year-old law that requires those reviews. It's known as NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act.
Some of the biggest proposed changes would include exempting smaller projects from these reviews at all — projects that don't use significant federal money would also be exempt — limiting the length of many reviews to just two years, and allowing agencies to ignore the cumulative impact of proposed projects, which could include a project's potential contribution to climate change.
Amy Harder covers energy and climate for Axios, and she joins me now.
Welcome back to the "NewsHour."
Thanks for having me on.
So, before we get to the administration's proposed changes, can you just remind us?
This law was signed 50-something years ago by Richard Nixon. What's the intent, the original intent of the law?
Well, this was signed in 1970, along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency itself by President Nixon.
And the purpose of it is to make sure that everything that the government has a hand in is good to the environment. So, whether it's a road or a bridge or an oil pipeline, there needs to be an environmental review on that. And that's why both backers and detractors in this law say it is one of the most litigated laws in America.
So, for 50 years, this law has been in place, and if you want to do — build a bridge, dig a mine, you have to somehow prove on paper, here's what the impact of my project would be?
Right. They're called environmental impact statements.
And if you were following the Keystone XL fight closely, as I was for the last decade, you would know that that fight was all about the EIS and supplemental EISes and supplemental EISes. There were multiple of those written.
And that's the argument that Trump and others have cited for reasons why this law needs to be overhauled.
OK. So, as you were saying, the Trump administration comes along and has been hearing these complaints, as you're saying, that this causes endless delays, paperwork, it's just really not worth — it's sort of gumming up the works.
What are they proposing to change?
Well, as you said, initially, one of the biggest changes is to exempt certain projects, the ones that don't require a lot of government funding.
Now, experts and others are still going through the weeds of what this proposal would mean, but that could likely mean that things like the Keystone pipeline may not be subject to environmental reviews at all.
Because there's no federal money or federal role in that, beyond permitting it.
Right. Right, because Keystone was a project by a private company. All they needed was the governmental approval.
And so that could — that could be a sea change for oil and gas pipelines across the country and other energy projects.
Now, I should emphasize that, with the announcement today, the president and others didn't focus on oil and gas at all. They focused on other things that I think people care more about, frankly, like highways and schools and things like that, that I think people realize and notice perhaps more than a pipeline.
One of the changes, I know, is, they're also saying that reviews don't have to necessarily look at the long-term, downstream consequences of a project, meaning, if I want to put a bridge across a wetland or a pipeline across parts of Kansas, I'm just looking at what that pipeline would do to the literal nearby territory, not what it might mean five years down the road or what it might mean for a community in the next county over.
Is that right?
And so administration officials today were careful to say that the words climate change actually aren't in the proposal at all, and that's correct.
But courts have traditionally interpreted cumulative effects to include climate change. So by excluding cumulative reviews, they're essentially excluding climate change.
However, that doesn't preclude companies from going above and beyond and doing consideration of climate change. And I think perhaps some companies will, but a lot of the smaller companies or those who think they don't need to, they won't, and, of course, the government won't be there to tell them to do that.
And, as you might expect, we have seen environmental groups across the board, up and down, large and small, decry these proposed changes.
What's their principal concern with all this?
Well, I think there's a couple of them.
I think the first about the fact that this could exempt from entire environmental review things like pipelines would be significant. Fighting pipelines across the country have been a key environmental tactic since the middle of the Obama administration.
And so while Trump and other people today didn't focus on pipelines, that could actually be a big impact to this law. And so it could leave environmentalists and others hamstrung in terms of what they can fight.
The other, of course, is the actual consideration of climate change. I think some worry that, if you don't consider climate change, will you build a pipeline where flooding happens regularly? And I think, again, that that responsibility will fall onto the burden of the corporation pushing the project, and will the corporation do it?
I think self-regulation is, of course, a very controversial thing. That has not proven out so well in the past.
Is there a way you can help us fact-check the concerns that industry has said all along, that this law really does gum up the works?
The administration pointed today to the example of a bridge, I believe it was, in North Carolina that they argued took 20 years to build. Is it true that this law really does get in the way of major projects?
I think, with a lot of things, it depends, right?
So I think, in some cases, yes, definitely, this law has been on the books for 50 years. There's been, really — I think, other than a 1986 change, there hasn't been a lot of reform or reexamination of it. So I do think the administration is very much in the right to say that there have been examples of where bureaucracy has been run amok.
Does that mean you do away with the entire law and make it so projects that don't get government funding should haven't to be reviewed? I think critics would say that that would be going way too far.
But I think, as with a lot of things in Washington, middle ground is not always what — where things end up. You either do extreme one way or extreme to the other. And I think today we're seeing the pendulum of this type of regulation review being swung far more to where industry wants it.
So, as with all things, this is not the final word. These are proposed changes.
What happens next?
Well, the next logistical step is to have some public hearings and then a final regulation by — before the election.
If a Democrat wins, you can be sure that this will be swiftly repealed. But, longer term, this could invite even maybe more lawsuits.
Amy Harder of Axios, thank you very much.
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