Trump revisions to environmental review process draws praise from Utah officials, ire of environmental groups
Process for building infrastructure expected to speed up significantly
SALT LAKE CITY — Environmental groups are panning a Trump administration rule change designed to speed up infrastructure projects while industry representatives and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert praised the move as “overdue” and essential to a fairer process.
President Donald Trump said the “maze-like approval process” required for the review of infrastructure built on federal land is no more, ending with a rule change slashing the time frame to two years or less.
“We are doing something very dramatic,” he announced at a Georgia press conference at the UPS Hapeville Airport Hub in Atlanta on Wednesday.
“I’ve been wanting to do this since day one,” he added.
Trump’s overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, is a move he said will cut through the “mountains and mountains of bureaucratic red tape in Washington, D.C.,” and eliminate what he says is the single biggest obstacle to projects reaching fruition.
He emphasized that only 7% of federal highway projects go through NEPA in two years or less, with most playing out through the review process over a time frame of 10 to 15 years or more, a duration which impacts project costs and often makes builders abandon their efforts in frustration.
That 7% will now be the exception, not the rule, Trump emphasized.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert applauded the change expediting reviews.
“I appreciate the Trump administration’s work to modernize NEPA, which was long overdue,” Herbert said in a statement. “Environmental protection is crucial, and a simpler, faster and more certain process is a win for everyone. Taxpayers and the environment will both benefit from these changes.”
As an example, the federal environmental review for the West Davis Corridor in Davis County began in 2010 and didn’t wrap up until seven years later.
John Gleason, spokesman with the Utah Department of Transportation, said the agency also engaged in a four-year process to make sure all necessary environmental requirements were met in the overhaul of I-15 in Utah County in the Lehi area in support of the “tech corridor.”
But critics like environmental groups assailed the change, charging it will cut out the public and invoke harm to landscapes, cause additional industrial pollution, harm wildlife and contribute to a warming climate.
“The National Environmental Policy Act ensures that federal policymakers look before they leap on major projects and decisions. This final rule effectively guts that, transforming federal decision-making from being informed by science and public input into a dangerous trust fall,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “Make no mistake, these changes will result in communities suffering new public health challenges, avoidable losses of wildlife habitat, and wastes of taxpayer dollars. We will work tirelessly to restore this landmark environmental law.”
Katie Murtha, vice president of federal government relations at Environment America, echoed those concerns.
“Without these safeguards, our environment is at greater risk because our government will no longer have to look before it leaps,” she said. “These regulations have served as a key tool for assuring the federal government acts as a responsible trustee for future generations.”
In contrast, the move was praised by industry, including the National Mining Association and the American Energy Alliance because of NEPA’s nexus with fossil fuel development and mineral extraction on federal lands.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance representing independent oil and gas producers in Utah and other Western states, said the revision should have happened years ago.
“For far too long, NEPA has been a tool used not for mitigating actual environmental impacts, but for stopping projects that create jobs and economic benefit for society,” she said.
“As a functioning society, we must get a handle on NEPA to reach a reasonable balance between building infrastructure and protecting the environment. This administration has the courage to tackle this difficult issue, and we applaud the final rule.”
The rule changes comes after a multiyear review, which produced more than 1.1 million public comments and involved a broad range of stakeholders, according to the Trump administration.