White House moves to restore key environmental review rules

WASHINGTON, Oct 6 (Reuters) - The White House on Wednesday took the first step to restore federal regulations guiding environmental reviews of major infrastructure projects like highways and pipelines, which were scaled back by the Trump administration that sought to fast-track them.

The White House Council for Environmental Quality said it will restore key provisions of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations that had been in place before the Trump administration overhauled the rules last year for the first time in decades.

The new rule proposed by the White House council would direct the agency to account for climate change and other indirect environmental impacts of a project; empower federal agencies to consider alternative designs or approaches for a company's proposed projects and let agencies adopt reviews that go beyond council's regulations.

“The basic community safeguards we are proposing to restore would help ensure that American infrastructure gets built right the first time,” said council Chair Brenda Mallory, who added that the changes can "reduce conflict and litigation" involved in the environmental review process.

Former President Donald Trump in 2020 revamped NEPA in an effort to fast track major projects like the now cancelled Keystone XL oil pipeline that he said got caught up in red tape and interfered with his focus on U.S. "energy dominance."

His NEPA overhaul allowed federal agencies to exclude the climate impact of a project, making it easier for major fossil fuel projects to sail through the approval process and avoid legal challenges.

Trump's rule also widened the categories of projects that can be excluded from NEPA altogether.

Over the last few years, federal courts had ruled that NEPA required the federal government to consider a project’s carbon footprint in decisions related to leasing public lands for drilling or building pipelines.

Senator Tom Carper, chair of the Senate environment and public works committee, said the council's move was timely as the White House and Congress work to pass major infrastructure legislation that could result in a rush of new projects.

"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," he said.

Environmental advocates said they will work with the White House council to ensure that NEPA reviews give a voice to communities that are affected by big infrastructure projects.

"We look forward to working with the Biden Administration to ensure this new rule prioritizes the input of frontline and historically marginalized communities, and to quickly restore all of NEPA’s essential protections,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, National Wildlife Federation Vice President of Environmental Justice.

Over the coming months, the council will work on the next phase of its changes to NEPA regulations, which will get into more detail about how local communities can participate in the environmental review process and factor in climate change impacts.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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