Lawsuit Challenges Trump’s Overhaul of Environmental-Review Law

Mountains and snow, Yellowstone National Park. (Courthouse News photo/Chris Marshall)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A legal battle with far-reaching consequences for industry and ecosystems kicked off Wednesday with the filing of a federal lawsuit over the Trump administration’s revamp of a longstanding law that requires extensive environmental reviews for road, industry and building projects.

A coalition of 20 conservation groups sued to block President Donald Trump’s revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act, a 50-year-old law that forces government agencies to carefully assess the ecological impacts of projects before they start.

Trump touted the economic benefits of the overhaul during a July 15 press conference in Atlanta, saying it would eliminate “unnecessary regulatory delays” to help kickstart economic recovery from the pandemic.

The rule, finalized by the White House Council on Environmental Quality on July 16, is the first major overhaul of NEPA regulations since 1978.

Conservation groups complain in their lawsuit that the new rule “upends virtually every aspect of NEPA” and weakens key requirements designed to ensure that the impacts of a project are thoroughly studied and fully considered.

“We will not allow the Trump administration to compromise our rights to protect our communities and public health from the harms associated with unscrupulous and destructive industrial developments such as mining, oil and gas, and military operations,” said Pamela Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, lead plaintiff in the case, in a statement Wednesday.

The rule limits the types of projects subject to NEPA review, expands categorical exemptions for certain projects and allows agencies to waive NEPA reviews if projects are subject to other review processes. It requires agencies to only consider effects that have a “reasonably close causal relationship” to a project and rules out effects that are “remote in time or space.”

It also eliminates a requirement that agencies consider both cumulative and indirect effects, which could allow projects to go forward without assessing their impact on issues such as climate change.

The rule empowers agencies not to seek information about a project’s impacts if the cost of doing so would be “unreasonable.” It changes the standard for sharing draft environmental impact reports with the public so that “incomplete or misleading” draft documents can be released, according to the lawsuit.

In assessing the impacts of a project, the rule redefines “reasonably foreseeable” as what a “person of ordinary prudence” would consider “likely,” potentially eliminating consideration of impacts that are considered likely by technical experts but not laymen.

Additionally, the rule eliminates a process in which agencies seek input from the public on the scope of issues, limits public comment periods to 30 days, and removes a requirement that environmental impact reports be publicly available for 15 days before a public hearing.

For proposed changes to an agency action, the rule limits consideration of public comments to those that cite “data sources and methodologies” and addresses the “economic and employment impacts” of a proposed change.

By changing “shall” to “may,” the new rule also frees federal agencies from having to provide detailed explanations and supporting citations in responses to public comments. It also requires agencies to issue a statement certifying that they considered all comments and imposes a “conclusive presumption” that the agency did so, ostensibly undermining one avenue for legal challenges against a government decision.

The rule also limits the review process to a two-year timeframe, even though most NEPA reviews take four years to complete on average.

The plaintiffs say the administration failed to consider the significant environmental impacts of its NEPA overhaul, which they denounce as inconsistent with the text, structure, and intent of the landmark environmental law. They seek a court order nullifying the new rule.

“We won’t allow the Trump administration’s scorched-earth attack on this bedrock environmental law to stand,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in the case. “NEPA was designed to protect the most vulnerable among us and give folks a voice in what happens in their communities. It was intended to ensure a healthy environment and safeguard wildlife for generations to come. It was never about making special interests richer, until now.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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