President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would expedite permitting for infrastructure projects, building on earlier orders to ease regulations for industry. The White House contends the move will help speed the nation’s recovery after the coronavirus pandemic.
The order directs federal agencies, including Interior, Agriculture and Defense departments and the Army Corps of Engineers, to hasten the permitting processes required under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.
Trump signed the order Thursday afternoon at the Oval Office, a day after House Democrats released a $494 billion infrastructure bill that includes climate change provisions.
Such an executive order is certain to amplify criticism of the Trump administration by environmental groups and Democrats already angered by other steps they say the White House has taken at the behest of industry.
Democratic leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and House Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., tied the executive order to environmental justice issues as communities of color and other vulnerable populations face a disproportionate risk of environmental problems resulting from industrial operations.
“Gutting NEPA takes away one of the few tools communities of color have to protect themselves and make their voices heard on federal decisions impacting them,” Grijalva said in an emailed statement.
In January, the White House Council on Environmental Quality proposed a rule that would for the first time in nearly four decades change the way the National Environmental Policy Act is implemented to expedite permitting for energy and other infrastructure projects that industry and conservative lawmakers say get bogged down in a protracted, complicated permitting process.
"The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis,” Trump said in a statement accompanying the text of his directive. “Unnecessary regulatory delays will deny our citizens opportunities for jobs and economic security, keeping millions of Americans out of work and hindering our economic recovery from the national emergency."
A spokesperson for Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso said the Wyoming Republican agrees with Trump that “modernizing” America’s infrastructure and streamlining the permitting process are top priorities to help put people back to work. The spokesperson touted Barrasso’s highway and infrastructure bill (S 2302) that would make the permitting less stringent. Barrasso has pushed for the bill's inclusion in coronavirus relief package.
Industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute and National Mining Association welcomed the executive order.
“Today’s executive order provides an opportunity to jumpstart our economic recovery by ensuring that we are rebuilding and modernizing with American-made materials, equipment and jobs,” National Mining Association President & CEO Rich Nolan said on Thursday. “Smart permitting reforms will support increased use of the vast domestic mineral reserves we have right here at home, reversing the alarming mineral import reliance that has more than doubled in the last 25 years.”
One environmental advocate called the order "an egregious attempt to bail out the flailing fossil fuel industry by allowing it to completely bypass benchmark environmental rules at a moment when Trump thinks no one is paying attention."
The advocate, Food & Water Action Executive Director Wenonah Hauter, also said the order "is the latest in a string of outlandish authoritarian acts from a president that is quickly spiraling deeper into the realm of anti-democratic, anti-law, anti-Constitution dictatorship."
Easing regulations for industry, especially fossil fuel energy companies, has been a priority for Trump from the beginning of his presidency, and he has the backing of Republican lawmakers in Congress who have sought to do so legislatively.
In August 2017, Trump signed an executive order that the White House said would ensure that the “federal environmental review and permitting process for infrastructure projects is coordinated, predictable, and transparent.” That order similarly directed the Interior, Agriculture and Energy departments to coordinate efforts to make it easier for companies to get a green light for their projects on public lands.