Several provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill heading for a Senate vote take aim at the nation’s environmental permitting regime.
One group of changes would permanently reauthorize part of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which speeds up permitting for a broad range of projects, including mines, energy generation, and physical infrastructure.
Another set of changes would eliminate the need for federal agencies to do environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act for activities like applying pesticides and doing timber cuts on parcels of land up to 3,000 acres.
The bill would also codify an executive order President Donald Trump enacted in 2017 that sought to streamline environmental reviews by consolidating the decision making process across agencies and putting new deadlines in place. President Joe Biden rescinded the Trump order early in his administration.
Environmentalists were quick to condemn the provisions, saying they would gut needed safeguards.
“These provisions on NEPA not only severely limit or, at times, eliminate the review of health and environmental impacts, but taken together, they may effectively silence frontline communities, shield decisions from public scrutiny, and make it more difficult to hold the government accountable when they ignore impacts on communities most affected by the climate crisis,” said Stephen Schima, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice.
Industry groups have long argued that environmental permitting takes years and is needlessly complicated, and that a more efficient system should not be a partisan goal.
“There is an increasing awareness that federal red tape prevents badly needed infrastructure from reaching our communities and is a major obstacle to clean electricity,” said Mario Loyola, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and former associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“The bipartisan Senate infrastructure package builds on reforms of prior administrations of both parties,” Loyola added. “The only question I have is whether the changes go far enough.”