Biden Restores, Expands Bedrock Environmental Law Gutted by Trump

“Today’s rule restores strong environmental review of federal actions and will go a long way towards having a meaningful process to assess the health and safety impacts of an array of projects,” said one campaigner.

By Jessica Corbett. Published 4-30-2024 by Common Dreams

Moms Speak Up to Defend the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Photo: Moms Clean Air Force/flickr/CC

In a clear demonstration of how U.S. President Joe Biden’s priorities differ from those of his GOP predecessor, the Democrat on Tuesday finalized a two-part push to revive and strengthen a landmark environmental law eviscerated by the Trump administration in 2020.

While in office, former Republican President Donald Trump—who has pledged to “drill, baby, drill” if he wins back the White House—attacked the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which ensures communities can weigh in on projects that are built nearby or otherwise impact them.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality on Tuesday released regulations that “aim to undo Trump’s gift to polluters,” in the words of Food & Water Watch, one of several groups that applauded the Biden administration’s new rules.

“NEPA gives communities the power to participate and advocate for themselves when the federal government greenlights polluting projects like factory farms and fossil fuel power plants,” said Food & Water Watch legal director Tarah Heinzen. “Today’s rule restores strong environmental review of federal actions and will go a long way towards having a meaningful process to assess the health and safety impacts of an array of projects.”

“Over the past few years, NEPA has been targeted by polluters and their political allies as an impediment to permitting sensible and necessary projects,” Heinzen noted. “But this is simply not the case; full, transparent consideration of a project’s impacts—including climate and environmental justice impacts—is critical to informed decision making and ultimately transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

In addition to reinstating provisions gutted under Trump, Biden’s rule introduces new climate and environmental justice requirements.

“These are the most significant improvements in decades to the NEPA process that analyzes gas pipelines, power plants, and other polluting projects,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These rules undo the damage from both the previous administrations’ efforts to weaken NEPA and the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023.”

Hartl also highlighted some inconsistency with Biden’s record, saying that “these rules come not a moment too soon, as the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal agencies continue to unthinkingly approve climate-killing fossil fuel projects. All federal agencies must now meaningfully adjust their environmental reviews so that fossil fuel companies’ profits aren’t put above the interests of our most vulnerable communities and our climate.”

Friends of the Earth legal director Hallie Templeton similarly praised the progress while stressing that the fight is far from over.

“This marks a victory in our yearslong litigation to reverse the rollbacks and benefits frontline communities who rely on NEPA for a voice in the permitting process and for transparency around our government’s activities,” said Templeton. “While much more must be done to shore up our nation’s environmental and environmental justice laws, this is a certain step in the right direction for safeguarding people and the planet.”

Abigail Dillen, Earthjustice’s president, emphasized that “smart, transparent blueprinting for the future has never been more important.”

“We need to build out the clean energy infrastructure of the future as efficiently and affordably as possible, while forcing a shift in business-as-usual thinking that is driving fossil fuels expansion, entrenching environmental injustice, and accelerating biodiversity loss,” she asserted. “This new rule restores NEPA to its original intent while modernizing its implementation to address the scale of the environmental problems we face now.”

Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous pointed out that “this rule is yet another reminder that we do not have to choose between environmental justice and meeting our energy needs.”

“Through this commonsense reform, we can unlock the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act and bring abundant clean energy resources online without sacrificing communities or rubber-stamping more fossil fuels,” he continued, referencing a package signed by the president in 2022. “We applaud the Biden administration for taking this important step toward ensuring certainty, efficiency, and transparency in the federal environmental review process.”

David Watkins, the director of government affairs for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that “by restoring and strengthening key provisions of NEPA, the Biden administration has unequivocally declared that polluting industries will not have the only say in how federal investments and projects are evaluated.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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