Ag Groups Praise NEPA Change

New Rule Limits Environmental Review of Federal Infrastructure Projects

President Donald Trump's rule change for the National Environmental Protection Act could speed up construction and expansion of interstate bridges, as well as dams and pipelines. Environmentalists raise concerns it could lead to greater risks for pollution as well. (DTN file photo by Katie Dehlinger)

By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
and
Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Western agricultural groups were among those who praised President Donald Trump's announcement Wednesday of a final rule to rewrite the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations for the first time in more than 40 years.

Trump spoke about the rule change at an event in Atlanta. He blamed NEPA rules for causing extensive delays in project construction and adding millions of dollars to the cost of projects.

"This is a truly historic breakthrough, which means better roads, bridges, tunnels, and highways for every UPS driver and every citizen all across our land," Trump said. "Together, we're reclaiming America's proud heritage as a nation of builders and a nation that can get things done, because with these horrible roadblocks that were put in front of us, you couldn't get it done. No matter how good you were, you couldn't get it done. You'd wait and wait. You'd go to the next step. You'd say, 'You can't start the next step until you finish the first.'"

The new rule sets a deadline of up to two years to complete any environmental studies on projects involving federal agencies. The rule also will allow federal agencies to conclude there is no need for an environmental assessment.

Trump's moves to remove red tape in environmental laws sets up another election division between himself and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who gave a speech and laid out plans on Tuesday to upgrade infrastructure around the country to combat climate change.

Republicans on Wednesday praised Trump's latest rollback. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said, "Overregulation and unnecessary permitting delays have had negative impacts on our communities for decades, especially in rural areas." Newhouse added, "Our constituents cannot afford these delays when trying to renew, maintain, or develop critical infrastructure projects across the country. This rule will finally allow for a streamlined permitting approach, encourage environmental stewardship, and incentivize investment in our rural communities across the West and beyond."

Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., who is also a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said, "The rule seeks to prevent delays for infrastructure projects by establishing a two-year time limit for the completion of federal environmental impact statements and a one-year limit for environmental assessments."

"Further, the new rule would promote information sharing and efficiency among federal agencies as well as better collaboration with state, local and tribal governments," Hoeven said. "Infrastructure, whether it's for mitigating natural disasters, producing energy or transporting people and goods, serves as the backbone of our economy."

Hoeven pointed to the Dakota Access pipeline as a project that has been "bogged down through litigation," and the federal NEPA review process has also inflated costs and caused significant delays for the pipeline and similar projects.

"This final rule is a welcome effort that builds on our record of providing regulatory certainty for future projects and will help taxpayer dollars go further as we work to build and repair the nation's infrastructure," Hoeven said.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and the Public Lands Council (PLC) celebrated the finalization of the Trump administration's rulemaking on NEPA, issuing a joint statement.

"The modernized NEPA rule brings common sense back to an important rule that was established to protect our land and water resources," said NCBA President Marty Smith.

"President Trump and his team at the Council on Environmental Quality embraced a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure this country has the strongest possible environmental policy for years to come," Smith said.

"They deserve an abundance of thanks. American ranchers that care for hundreds of millions of acres of private and public lands across the United States know the importance of implementing timely improvements based on the best knowledge at hand. These changes ensure NEPA does not delay good management practices."

"The process updates to NEPA are celebrated across the West," said PLC President Bob Skinner.

"Today's rule recognizes the severe limitations of a policy that had not been updated in more than 40 years. Over the last four decades, ranchers learned and adapted to new needs of wildlife and other rangeland users, but outdated NEPA policy prevented us from responding to many critical situations," Skinner said.

The groups added, "The updated NEPA rule does not change the substantive NEPA law, but rather, improves the management, interpretation, and engagement of NEPA processes. This includes establishing presumptive time limits of two years for environmental impact statements (EISs) and one year for environmental assessments (EAs), codifying relevant case law and determining appropriate levels of environmental review, expanding outreach and utilized technologies, and ensuring meaningful and effective environmental reviews."

The Family Farm Alliance stated the new rule will also help irrigators in Western states. Patrick O'Toole, president of the group, said NEPA delays have slowed construction of dam projects that would improve water resources in Western states.

"The often slow and cumbersome federal regulatory process is a major obstacle to realization of projects and actions that could enhance Western water supplies," O'Toole said. "NEPA implementation, in particular, can have a direct bearing on the success or failure of critical water supply enhancement projects."

The Agricultural Retailers Association also said it supports the changes made to NEPA. The final rule will speed up the approval process for much-needed infrastructure projects, which will especially benefit the rural communities in which ag retailers and their customers live and work, said Daren Coppock, president and CEO of the ARA.

"The rule does not compromise environmental reviews or public input; in fact, the rule will enhance the public's involvement through better coordination of hearings and more concise, accessible documents for review," Coppock said.

But Democrats and environmentalists pushed back on the rule. They argued NEPA was put in place to protect the health and environment, especially of minority and low-income communities that often face the negative consequences of poorly designed projects.

"President Trump either fundamentally misunderstands our national infrastructure challenge or is cynically using it to justify his continued assault on clean air and clean water protections," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Hoyer added that, most often, major infrastructure delays are "overwhelmingly caused by a lack of funding."

Hoyer added, "The president's rule change will only serve to cut communities out of the process of determining how best to move forward with infrastructure plans while again denying the reality of our global climate crisis."

The Natural Resources Defense Council was one of several environmental groups that denounced the new rule. NRDC stated the language of the rule would make a large swath of federal construction projects exempt from NEPA reviews, which goes against long-standing court decisions. Pointing to the 1,100-mile Dakota Access pipeline, NRDC stated that the Army Corps of Engineers could now sign off on pipeline water crossings without any review of the risk of potential water contamination.

"Projects this big and polluting need to be open to public comment and challenge -- and courts have stated that time and time again," NRDC stated.

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@nationaljournal.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN