Federal agencies will be allowed to minimize climate change when they analyze the environmental impacts of federal decisions such as oil and gas leasing, according to a White House proposal announced June 21.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality issued draft guidance for how federal agencies are required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires agencies to conduct an environmental review of major federal decisions concerning gas pipelines, fossil fuel development on public lands, logging and other projects.
The Obama administration in 2016 began requiring all environmental impact statements conducted under NEPA to include an estimate of how a project would contribute to climate change in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Trump administration withdrew that guidance in 2017 and is proposing to replace the Obama guidance with one that would prevent federal agencies from having to give greater consideration to greenhouse gas emissions than other environmental impacts.
The proposed guidance comes as President Donald Trump seeks to expand the use and development of the fossil fuels that cause climate change and roll back regulations that would rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Trump has cast doubt on established science that shows global warming is quickly becoming a global humanitarian, ecological and economic crisis.
If the guidance is finalized, agencies would have to project a federal project’s greenhouse gas emissions only when they are “substantial enough to warrant quantification, and when it is practicable” to do so.
Court decisions require federal agencies to consider the impacts of climate change regardless of White House guidance, said Michael Gerrard, founder and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
“I think there’s less here than meets the eye,” Gerrard said. “This new draft guidance requires less detail than the Obama guidance, but it doesn’t alter the underlying requirement. This draft does not deny anthropogenic climate change or tell agencies to shut their eyes. That would be legally self-defeating.”
The draft CEQ guidance gives federal agencies more flexibility in quantifying a federal decision’s impacts on climate change, Gerrard said.
“It does not let agencies off the hook from disclosing greenhouse gases if those are significant,” he said.
But the draft guidance doesn’t specify how significant a proposal’s greenhouse gas emissions would have to be to trigger an analysis of them, nor does it require agencies to consider ways to reduce the emissions as part of a proposal, according to a ClearView Energy Partners LLC analysis of the draft guidance.
Support for New Guidance
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a statement that the new draft guidance was “a needed step to limit excessive litigation exposure and provide clarity and consistency as federal agencies conduct environmental reviews.”
The American Petroleum Institute also approved, saying it would “streamline” NEPA.
“NEPA, which is a procedural statute only, increasingly has been misused to delay and prevent development, which negatively affects jobs, tax revenue and investment in communities across the country,” Howard Feldman, senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.
Environmental groups said the Trump administration is letting federal agencies get away with doing the bare minimum necessary to quantify federal actions’ impacts on the climate.
“The Trump White House is trying to force every federal agency to stick its head in the sand when it comes to climate change,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “While the rest of the world tries to fight global warming, our government will now be pouring more fuel on the fire.”