Joe Biden Wants To Spend Trillions on Infrastructure. His Environmental Reforms Ensure He’ll Have To.
President Joe Biden has ambitious plans to “Build Back Better” by spending trillions more on a broad array of infrastructure projects. At the same time, his administration wants to reverse regulatory reforms that tried to speed up the delivery of those projects.
Late last week, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced that it intends to undo the prior president’s changes to the regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Passed in 1969, NEPA requires federal agencies to study the environmental impacts of actions they take, whether that’s funding a new highway or approving a new pipeline. Over the decades, the burden imposed by NEPA has grown: The environmental reviews it mandates take years on average to complete and can run hundreds if not thousands of pages.
Donald Trump’s administration tried to streamline things a bit by limiting the environmental effects that agencies had to examine and by putting definitive time and page limits on NEPA reviews.
Even those marginal changes, implemented in September 2020, proved controversial with many environmentalists. Their concerns have resonated with the Biden administration.
“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,” said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory on Thursday.
The proposed rule published by the CEQ in the Federal Register would make a number of changes.
Most significantly, it would restore requirements that agencies’ NEPA reviews take into account the indirect and cumulative effects of projects.
The short-lived Trump changes said agencies generally didn’t have to study impacts of projects that are “remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain.” According to the Biden administration, that narrower requirement prevented agencies from properly accounting for longer-run climate change impacts.
The Trump administration’s NEPA reforms also treated CEQ rules as a ceiling, meaning agencies couldn’t impose additional requirements of their own. The Biden administration would instead treat CEQ rules as a floor, giving agencies the power to perform reviews that go beyond what the council requires.
Environmentalist groups have generally praised these changes.
“Restoring the obligation to consider direct, indirect, and cumulative emissions is critical for disclosure of climate and environmental justice impacts,” the Sierra Club announced last week. “Reviews that don’t look at indirect and cumulative effects of fossil fuel projects (such as coal mines, gas leases, pipelines), miss 95 percent of climate emissions and their impact on communities.”
Other NEPA experts are more critical, arguing that this is an ineffective and potentially counterproductive way to address climate change.
“All it does is c
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