Bloomberg Law
Jan. 7, 2020, 2:39 AM

White House Memo Shows Plans to Speed Environmental Permitting

Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

The Trump administration’s proposal to remake the rules governing environmental permitting will state that a project’s effects on the environment will only be considered if they are “reasonably foreseeable” and causally linked to the project, according to a draft memo seen by Bloomberg Environment.

The proposal, which could come as early as Jan. 7, marks the biggest changes to the National Environmental Policy Act in more than four decades. They would affect how the federal government reviews the environmental impact of major projects like pipelines, bridges, and roads.

Environmentalists say the administration’s previous uses of the “reasonably foreseeable” language—notably, when the Interior Department recently overhauled the Endangered Species Act—have been a veiled attempt to snip out any federal duty to take climate change into account in major infrastructure projects. The memo makes no specific mention of climate change.

The three-page memo, marked as a draft, was circulated to agencies after the White House Office of Management and Budget finished its review of the rule Dec. 20.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality could publish the proposal as early as Jan. 7, according to one source familiar with the agency’s thinking, though the timing could change.

According to the memo, the proposal will also give direction about whether the National Environmental Policy Act applies to a given action. Exempting major projects from NEPA’s strictures would let them move ahead faster, but environmentalists fear such exemptions could forgo proper scrutiny of their impacts on the air, land, water, or wildlife.

Self-Written Impact Statements

The proposal will also let project applicants prepare their own impact statements “under the supervision of an agency,” according to the memo.

Christy Goldfuss, who headed CEQ under President Barack Obama, hadn’t seen the proposal but said such a change could bring about significant conflicts of interest.

The proposal will also set a two-year time limit for environmental impact statements, and a one-year limit for the less rigorous environmental assessments under NEPA, according to the memo.

Only 25% of environmental impact statements are produced within 2 1/2 years, Edward Boling, CEQ’s associate director for NEPA, said at an Environmental Law Institute panel discussion last month.

Other changes include mandatory joint schedules, a single record of decision, and a single impact statement when multiple agencies are involved, the memo states.

In its 2018 advance notice of the proposal, CEQ said the changes are meant to ensure reviews are done more efficiently and effectively. President Donald Trump has sought to pare back regulations that impede economic growth.

Environmentalists have strenuously opposed any changes to NEPA, saying the White House’s emphasis on speed will forsake crucial environmental protections. Opponents also say NEPA already gives the federal government many tools to ensure that a project’s environmental impacts can be assessed quickly and efficiently.

Hearings Ahead

The public will be invited to comment on the rule once it’s published.

CEQ Chairman Mary B. Neumayr told Bloomberg Environment in December that CEQ’s comment period will go beyond receiving written remarks from the public.

“We do anticipate conducting hearings and engaging in public outreach,” she said. “We will participate in a number of events and look forward to engaging with the public.”

NEPA’s implementing regulations have been essentially unchanged since they were established in 1978.

Trump Blames ‘Complex’ Review Process

On Jan. 1, the 50th anniversary of NEPA’s enactment, Trump said in a statement that the environmental review process “has become increasingly complex and difficult to navigate.”

Undue delays in permitting “can increase costs, derail important projects, and threaten jobs for American workers and labor union members,” Trump wrote.

Neumayr said a more streamlined review process is fairer to project sponsors. Under the current system, applicants must wait several years for the NEPA process to be completed.

“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 last month. “It may not always be the decision that the applicant has requested, but it’s important that they get a decision.”

But Goldfuss, the former CEQ head who is now senior vice president of energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, rejected the argument that NEPA is the cause of project delays.

“The size of these projects are such that they take enormous amounts of investment, they have complicated funding scenarios, they take local, state, and federal-level permitting,” Goldfuss said. “Yes, we need to get better at building big projects in this country. I think it’s a convenient argument [to blame NEPA], but I don’t think the American public buys it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Renee Schoof at; Anna Yukhananov at