Trump administration strips back environmental regulations to speed up oil pipeline and infrastructure projects

Rozina Sabur
Donald Trump called the landmark regulation 

Donald Trump unveiled one of the biggest shakeups of US environmental law in four decades on Thursday as he vowed to speed up the development of pipelines, motorways and other infrastructure projects.

The US president revealed a string of proposals during a White House event which would limit the use of a landmark US environmental law and allow construction projects to go ahead with far less review of their impact on the environment.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a bedrock of US environmental law since it was enacted by Richard Nixon in 1970, requires government agencies to evaluate how major building projects affects the local environment, including nearby communities and wildlife.

The law has been a repeated target of Mr Trump, who has pledged to boost America's fossil fuel production and remove barriers to construction projects.

A NEPA review of the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to bring oil from Canada to the US, led former president Barack Obama to delay the pipeline's construction, a decision which was heavily criticised and later reversed by Mr Trump.

Activists protest after Mr Trump approved the US-Canada Keystone XL oil pipeline, saying it would create jobs and improve America's energy security Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP

Mr Trump outlined the proposed overhaul of the NEPA at the White House on Thursday, calling the current enforcement of the law "big government at its absolute worst."

"The United States can't compete and prosper if a bureaucratic system holds us back from building what we need," he said.

One of the key changes proposed would mean a range of private sector projects, such as oil pipelines, would no longer have to assess the environmental impact of their work and brief the public on them.

Other changes include time limits for the projects which still require reviews, with a limit of a year for carrying out environmental assessments and two years for completing environmental impact statements.  

The definition of environmental impacts would also be reduced to those that are "reasonably foreseeable" and have a "reasonably close causal relationship", while any changes must be "technically and economically feasible."

Mary Neumayr, the head of the Council on Environmental Quality, the agency which oversees the implementation of the environmental regulation, said the process had "become increasingly complex and time-consuming" for all involved.

"The proposed rule seeks to reduce paperwork and delays and promote better decision-making," she added.

The Trump administration does not have the power to scrap the law without Congress, but, as it has previously done for the Endangered Species Act, it can change the rules on how it is applied.

The proposals, which are subject to a 60-day review period for public comments before taking effect at a later date, would raise the threshold for what types of projects require an environmental impact assessment.

Anne Bradbury, head of an independent oil and gas producers trade group, said the proposed changes will hasten the permitting of oil projects, including pipelines, on federal lands.

The Trump administration has pushed hard for pipeline building to move ahead despite local challenges, along with calling for shortening the time and length of environmental reviews for projects.

However environmental groups say the changes will exempt polluters from public scrutiny of their projects, despite pumping considerable amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"[The overhaul] will eviscerate the public's right to be heard and jettison science-based decision-making," said Collin O'Mara, head of the National Wildlife Federation.

Meanwhile Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the proposal "takes a sledgehammer to decades of legal precedence and puts our communities at risk".