The Trump administration’s upcoming plan to speed environmental permitting won’t increase pollution or harm endangered species, said Mary B. Neumayr, the president’s top environmental adviser.
The Council on Environmental Quality, which Neumayr leads as chairman, is trying to change the rules under the National Environmental Policy Act so projects can get reviewed faster. The 2018 advance notice of the proposal said the changes would also ensure reviews are done more efficiently and effectively.
To Neumayr, a faster review is fairer to project applicants—who now must wait an average of 4 1/2 years to get a final decision—and a boon to communities that need infrastructure and jobs.
“It’s a priority for this administration to have a process that’s predictable and transparent and timely, so that we can get to a decision,” Neumayr said in an interview with Bloomberg Environment. “It may not always be the decision that the applicant has requested, but it’s important that they get a decision.”
But critics say the CEQ’s emphasis on speed undermines environmental protections.
“If your process is so efficient that you undercut getting the right information,” then “you’ve lost something,” said Brenda Mallory, former CEQ general counsel under the Obama administration, at a Dec. 17 panel convened by the Environmental Law Institute.
Environmental groups such as Earthjustice fear that CEQ’s proposal—which hasn’t been made public—could narrow the scope of NEPA review, limit the consideration of project alternatives, restrict public input, or impose hard deadlines for project approval.
The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs completed its review of CEQ’s proposal (RIN: 0331-AA03) on Dec. 20. Most observers say they expect OIRA to release the proposal for public comment in early January.
Neumayr declined to comment on what the proposal contains. But she said the proposed rule changes won’t weaken environmental protections.
“I think that it’s very important that agencies focus on significant effects, and that is really where their attention should be in conducting their reviews,” Neumayr said. “The purpose of NEPA is to help inform decision-making.”
Only 25% of environmental impact statements required under NEPA are produced within 2 1/2 years, Edward Boling, CEQ’s associate director for NEPA, said at the Environmental Law Institute event. One agency that marches through its environmental impact statements with “dogged determination” is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Boling added.
Under a 2017 executive order, President Donald Trump set a goal of completing reviews and permitting for major infrastructure projects within two years.
The average EIS is now more than 600 pages, even though federal regulations recommend no more than 150 pages, or 300 pages for projects of unusual scope, Neumayr said at the ELI event.
Already, the Trump administration has helped the NEPA process run faster, said Dava Kaitala, general director of permitting and sustainability at BNSF Railway, one of the nation’s biggest freight transportation companies.
Last year, BNSF lost multiple 150-foot bridges due to flooding, but “not a single minute of recovery time was lost due to permitting,” Kaitala said at the same Environmental Law Institute event.
Some of the White House’s environmental policies have also run afoul of both critics and various courts for ignoring the impacts of climate change.
Neumayr, who was appointed to her post by Trump in January 2019, said she broadly accepts the reality of climate science. But she stopped short of saying the science has been settled.
“It’s important that we continue to improve our understanding of climate science, which is complex,” Neumayr said. “I think it’s important that we continue to improve our forecasting and our modeling, and our ability to predict climate change in the future.”
She said the U.S. has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions since 2000 “even as our economy has grown and our energy production has grown.”
U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion, by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, increased 2.7% in 2018 after generally falling since 2005, according to a report from the Rhodium Group LLC. The EPA’s latest inventory of U.S. greenhouse gases was through 2017 and shows a decline of overall emissions from 7.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2000 to 6.5 billion metric tons in 2017.
The U.S. is the world’s second largest source, after China, of the carbon dioxide driving climate change, according to the International Energy Agency.
Ocean Research, Federal Efficiency
Asked about CEQ’s other priorities, Neumayr pointed to the White House’s new effort to explore and better understand the ocean, including finding new sources of energy, critical minerals, and pharmaceutical compounds.
Under the project, CEQ and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy want to make more federal ocean-related data available to the public and “maximize our science and technology investments,” Neumayr said.
Another priority is to promote efficient federal operations, she said. In May 2018, Trump issued an executive order directing agencies to reduce building energy and water use.
CEQ issued implementing instructions in April, and has since “been working with the agencies to work to meet their goals, improve their performance, and be more efficient,” Neumayr said.
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