Conservationists like to call the National Environmental Policy Act the “Magna Carta” of environmental law. Just as the charter of rights protected English citizens from monarchical rule, activists note, the foundational environmental policy gives United States citizens a voice in every federal road, housing project, airport or major infrastructure development.
It requires agencies to analyze and disclose the extent to which proposed federal actions or infrastructure projects affect the environment, from local wildlife habitat to the projected levels of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
Activists opposed to fossil fuel expansion have used the environmental policy to challenge a proposed major coal terminal in the state of Washington. Last year a federal judge found that the Obama administration did not adequately take into account the climate change impact of leasing public land for oil gas drilling in Wyoming, a ruling that also presented a threat to Mr. Trump’s plans for fossil fuel development.
Earlier this month, a district court shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil route from North Dakota to Illinois that has inspired intense protests and legal battles, pending more detailed environmental review. Oil and gas industry officials said while changes to the law will not retroactively help the case for the Dakota Access Pipeline, it will speed decisions on future permits. The same week the United States Supreme Court upheld a district court order that cited the environmental policy act when it halted construction on the Keystone pipeline. The decisions were major blows to Mr. Trump, who has been determined to see those projects become reality.
Mr. Trump, a former real estate developer who has had personal run-ins with state-level versions of the law, had made weakening it a top priority of his administration.
But despite tasking at least a half dozen people from various agencies to finish the regulation this summer, the final rule is not likely to be safe from the Congressional Review Act, a law that had hardly been used until Mr. Trump took office. Under the law, Congress can overturn a federal agency’s rule-making within 60 legislative days of its finalization, something Democrats have pledged to do next year if they have the votes. Otherwise, the rule is expected to be subject to a lengthy court battle.
The revisions, if they hold up in court, are expected to lead to more permitting for pipelines and other projects that worsen global greenhouse gas emissions. It could also make roads, bridges and other infrastructure riskier because developers would no longer be required to analyze issues like whether sea-level rise might eventually submerge a project.