Environmental red tape and Byzantine permit rules are making it impossible to build in the U.S., President Trump said Thursday in proposing a sweeping regulatory rewrite that would speed up federal approval of bridges, highways, pipelines and other major projects.
The bold move, however, rankled environmentalists and invited legal challenges that would delay the envisioned fast-track approvals.
Flanked by workers in hardhats and construction vests, the president said he was returning America to a time when massive projects were approved and built lickety-split, putting an end to the current bureaucratic regimen that can drag on for decades.
“I’ve been talking about it for a long time, where it takes many, many years to get something built, get something done,” Mr. Trump said in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. “The builders are not happy, nobody’s happy. It takes 20 years, it takes 30 years, it takes numbers that nobody would even believe.”
Under his proposal, environmental assessments of new projects under the National Environmental Policy Act must not take more than a year. A more comprehensive document — the environmental-impact statement — must be completed within two years.
His proposal calls for page limits on impact statements, urges separate agencies to work seamlessly on projects and requires senior officials to resolve disputes faster. It says the environmental effects of projects must be “reasonably foreseeable” and closely tied to the specific project.
“We’re going to have very strong regulation, but it’s going to go very quickly,” said Mr. Trump, who built his public reputation as a real estate mogul in New York.
Liberal groups said Mr. Trump is kowtowing to fossil fuel companies and playing with environmental fire, saying the move would exacerbate the climate crisis.
“Today’s move isn’t about ‘streamlining” or ‘modernizing,’ as the Trump administration claims,” said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress. “It’s about clearing the way for more polluting pipelines and dirty fossil fuel projects — plain and simple. If finalized, the proposed regulations would allow the Trump administration to race through project approvals without considering the long-term impacts.”
The Sierra Club said it may consider legal action, arguing the proposal would “write Donald Trump’s climate denial into official government policy.”
“We will pursue every available avenue to fight back against Trump’s shameless attack on our clean air and water, the climate, and our families’ health,” Executive Director Michael Brune said.
Administration officials insisted that Mr. Trump’s proposed update to NEPA is aimed at procedural red tape and would not upend key environmental protections within the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act or Endangered Species Act.
The push to slash federal regulations is a cornerstone of Mr. Trump’s agenda.
Deregulation, with his decision to nominate a long roster of conservatives to the judiciary, has rallied support for Mr. Trump within the GOP despite some establishment Republicans’ concerns about his strident rhetoric and governing style.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Thursday’s proposal is the biggest deregulatory step Mr. Trump has taken, and Mr. Trump grumbled that furor over his impeachment and tensions with Iran would bury the announcement.
Enacted in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act created a national framework that requires the federal government to take environmental changes into account when building or funding projects such as airports and military bases.
Administration officials said regulations that carry out the act haven’t been updated since the late 1970s and remain overly complex and time-consuming for Washington bureaucrats and local authorities.
Mr. Trump’s proposal would update those regulations.
It often takes from five to 10 years for the government to examine a project’s effects, administration officials said. The average environmental impact statement is more than 600 pages, meaning officials sometimes don’t even read it all.
NEPA is also the most litigated area of environmental law, increasing costs for applicants, localities and taxpayers, according to the administration.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded Mr. Trump’s push to streamline the permitting process, saying it often takes more time to get projects approved than to build them.
“Reducing delays and uncertainties associated with infrastructure investment and related projects will allow businesses to plan and invest with confidence while enhancing economic productivity and supporting more and better-paying jobs throughout the country,” chamber CEO Tom Donohue said.
Democrats were livid about the proposed changes, which will be up for public comment for 60 days. They say Mr. Trump is trying to dismantle a system that has protected the environment for half a century.
“Americans cannot afford the administration’s latest assault on vital environmental and economic protections. Our communities need robust investments in sustainable and resilient infrastructure that strengthens, not diminishes, protections for our families and communities,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
Administration officials said delays are allowing the nation’s infrastructure to crumble, so something has to give.
Mr. Trump said it took only a few years to build iconic structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam.
Now, “it can take more than 10 years just to get a permit to build a simple road,” Mr. Trump said. “And usually, you’re not even able to get the permit, it’s unusual when you get it. It’s big government at its absolute worst.”
He cited projects from North Carolina to Washington state to Alaska that lingered for 15 to 25 years.
Mr. Trump said the clunky process makes America look like “a third-world country.”
“It’s really sad,” he said.
Mr. Bernhardt said a streamlined process would make life easier for everyone.
National parks would be able to build out visitor centers faster, while firefighters would be able to get cracking on breaks in forestland that minimize devastating fires. Ranchers would find out whether they can raise livestock on public lands and farmers would be able to secure a water supply for crops in a timely fashion.
“The list goes on and on and on,” Mr. Bernhardt said. “This is a big step forward for the American people and common sense.”
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