November 22, 2019 / 12:07 PM / 16 days ago

Industry groups urge White House to finish overhauling U.S. environmental review process

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than 30 industry groups on Friday called on the Trump administration to finish a regulatory overhaul that would make it easier to clear federal environmental approval for big infrastructure projects such as pipelines and road expansions.

The 33 groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and American Petroleum Institute, sent a letter to White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair Mary Neumayr asking the agency to “expeditiously proceed” with efforts to “modernize” National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations.

Environmental groups oppose the effort to streamline the process for some of the biggest polluting industries from refineries to airlines, saying it would gut federal protections and transparency for communities directly affected by major infrastructure projects in their backyards.

CEQ’s proposed updates to NEPA have been under White House review since earlier this fall. CEQ did not respond to a request for comment on when it will issue the changes, which could cut red tape for stalled projects such as pipelines and major highway expansions.

Streamlining the process could hasten approvals for future proposals like the Keystone pipeline, which has been held up by federal courts for not undergoing a rigorous NEPA study.

“CEQ regulations guiding NEPA processes have not been comprehensively updated in nearly four decades. During this time, securing approval for projects and land management decisions has become hampered by unreasonable costs and long project delays,” the groups said in the letter.

NEPA, enacted in 1970, requires all federal agencies to conduct comprehensive studies into the potential environmental impacts of big proposed projects before they can proceed.

In 2017, President Donald Trump kickstarted an effort to overhaul NEPA for the first time in 40 years with an executive order directing the CEQ to speed up the process and requiring that one federal agency, instead of multiple agencies, take the lead on a NEPA review.

Environmental groups have raised concerns, saying the NEPA process offers vital protections for communities that will be directly affected by big projects in their backyards and transparency for communities where projects are being proposed.

“A lot is riding on this. The fact that you have 80 agencies that follow NEPA and these regulations have been their go-to parameters for last 50 years, I cant stress how big this impact these changes will have,” said Raul Garcia, senior counsel at environmental group Earthjustice.

Garcia is concerned that expediting the NEPA process will lead to environmental reviews cutting corners and overlooking potentially hazardous impacts.

“The brunt of this will be felt from frontline communities,” he said.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by David Gregorio

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