White House moves to restore environment reviews eased by Trump

At issue are federal reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, used to examine proposed highways, pipelines and other big projects

Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in her office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in her office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 6, 2021 at 5:04pm


The White House Council on Environmental Quality is moving to restore several key environmental review requirements that were rolled back by the Trump administration.

The proposed rule CEQ announced Wednesday is likely to encounter resistance from Republican lawmakers who had cheered those Trump-era changes, even as some environmental groups continue pushing regulators to go further and wipe the previous administration’s rewrite off the books entirely.

At issue is the process for federal reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act, used to examine proposed highways, pipelines and other major projects. The Trump administration overhauled those rules in what it billed as an attempt to modernize and accelerate that process to deliver important projects faster.

That included striking explicit requirements that regulators consider a project’s indirect and cumulative effects, a move that sparked fears that projects could be approved despite contributing to the overall burden felt by disadvantaged communities long plagued by pollution. The new proposed rule would restore the requirement for agencies to consider indirect and cumulative effects.

“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,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory said in a news release. “Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help reduce conflict and litigation and help clear up some of the uncertainty that the previous administration’s rule caused.”

The proposed rule also would restore flexibility for agencies to determine the “purpose and need” of a proposed project and work to mitigate harms with alternative designs that don’t fully align with the stated goals of the project’s backers. It also would make clear that NEPA regulations represent a floor, not a ceiling, for federal environmental review standards.

CEQ is soliciting public comment on its proposal, with two public meetings scheduled in October, and also plans to work on a broader rewrite of the regulations.

During Mallory’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., characterized the NEPA review process as a hurdle that adds costly delays and ultimately prompts people to abandon projects.

Mallory and others have defended the NEPA process as necessary to ensuring projects are done right.

Environmental groups and Capitol Hill Democrats hailed Wednesday’s announcement.

“At a time when we are on the precipice of passing a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure, the changes proposed today will improve certainty to avoid project slowdowns and litigation,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., said in a statement. “Importantly, this proposal will restore the primary means of evaluating the impacts of federal action on the environment and ensure a more equitable process.”

But others said the job isn’t done.

Seventeen environmental groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center challenged the Trump changes in federal court, arguing they were inappropriately rushed through. A judge dismissed that lawsuit in June, but the groups are appealing that decision.

In a letter to CEQ on Tuesday, Kym Hunter, a senior attorney at the SELC, cited a Freedom of Information Act request that found there was no underlying analysis conducted for the Trump administration’s conclusion that its rewrite would not harm minority and low-income populations or cause a significant financial hit to small businesses. She cited that as one more reason the rules should be completely vacated.

In an interview, Hunter said the changes announced Wednesday are welcome but insufficient and that she expects the litigation to continue because of unaddressed problems with the Trump changes.

She said, for example, that CEQ’s new proposed rule does not address how the previous changes would exclude projects from NEPA reviews. That includes changes shielding large livestock operations from review.

“While this fixes a couple of things, there is much left to be fixed,” Hunter said. “And we’re still of the opinion that the best and most legal solution would be to just vacate the entire rule, and so we will be continuing to push for that.”