January 23, 2019  
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White House plots update to NEPA guidelines
White House plots update to NEPA guidelines
he Trump administration has signaled its intent to update the baseline National Environmental Policy Act guidelines for the whole federal government.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality has submitted a draft advanced notice of proposed rulemaking, dated Thursday, with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, indicating that it will update "the regulations for implementing the procedural provisions" of NEPA.

The draft will be published in the Federal Register as an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking in the coming weeks after an interagency review, a CEQ spokesman told E&E News. That will trigger a public comment period before CEQ submits a more detailed proposal for what, exactly, it wants to change.

If it eventually goes through, the new guidelines could mark a major change for how agencies across the government handle permitting.

Other agencies have their own NEPA regulations, and some, such as the Department of the Interior, have already undergone changes during the Trump administration.

But CEQ guides implementation of the landmark law, and its regulations set minimum standards. Environmental groups fear the Trump administration could seek to take out NEPA's teeth.

"As much as we talk about NEPA, the statute itself is very short, very concise," said Raul Garcia, legislative counsel with Earthjustice. "What gives it a lot of its teeth and value are the regulations that CEQ put in place in order to implement the statute."

The draft has few details, so it's unclear as of yet exactly how CEQ will proceed. The spokesman said the draft was developed in accordance with President Trump's Aug. 15, 2017, executive order, which sought to limit NEPA reviews to two years.

"While CEQ has issued memoranda and guidance documents over the years, it has only amended its regulations once," the spokesman said. "Therefore, CEQ believes it is appropriate at this time to solicit public comment and consider updating the implementation regulations."

One potential roadblock is that CEQ still does not have a permanent director. Trump's pick for that position, Kathleen Hartnett White, withdrew her name from consideration after it became clear she would not pass the Senate. CEQ's chief of staff, Mary Neumayr, has been handling that role on an interim basis.

Still, the draft comes as no surprise. Environmentalists and other agency watchers have for months been expecting CEQ to update its NEPA guidelines, and the White House outlined its intent to do so in its infrastructure plan, released in February (Greenwire, Feb. 12).

The rewrite could aim to expand categorical exclusions or set shorter time limits on permitting litigation, both of which were outlined in the infrastructure plan.

The plan notes that CEQ's regulations have not been updated since 1978 and says the "environmental review process under NEPA as it exists today is lengthy, inefficient and costly."

The potential rewrite also follows several moves aimed at streamlining environmental permitting, including an interagency agreement signed last month (Greenwire, April 9).

Energy industry groups have generally praised the Trump administration for its moves to speed up permitting, saying that it gives companies more certainty as they move ahead with big, expensive infrastructure projects.

But environmentalists are already sounding the alarm about what they see as one of the biggest attempts yet to weaken environmental requirements.

"This could be a really big problem for anybody that cares about communities having a voice in the process, for anybody that cares about smart decisionmaking," Garcia said.

Posted on Monday, May 7, 2018 (Archive on Monday, May 28, 2018)
Posted by Jym St. Pierre   Contributed by Jym St. Pierre

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