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Pipeline stops

Climate activist groups protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as oral arguments are heard in U.S. Forest Service and Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC v. Cowpasture River Association on February 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Biden Takes 'Critical First Step' to Fix Landmark Environmental Law Gutted by Trump

"The Biden administration cannot stop here," said one advocate, calling on the White House "to ensure we tap NEPA's full potential to address the unprecedented environmental challenges we face now."

Jessica Corbett

While welcoming the White House's move Tuesday to repair some of the damage that the Trump administration did to a federal law known as "the Magna Carta of environmental legislation," green groups also urged President Joe Biden to go even further.

"I'm glad this administration... is moving forward to restore the protections that have helped protect our environment while promoting sustainable development for decades."

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) finalized its "phase 1" rule for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), reaffirming that federal agencies reviewing infrastructure projects such as highways and pipelines must consider all relevant environmental impacts, including those that are climate-related.

"This is a critical first step toward restoring commonsense environmental safeguards, but we have a long way to go and very little time," declared Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The Biden administration must ensure that every federal decision addresses systemic environmental injustice, climate chaos, and the extinction crisis," he said. "These key protections must be quickly put back in place and then strengthened during the next phase."

Leslie Fields, Sierra Club's national director of policy, advocacy, and legal, similarly said that "we are encouraged to see the Biden administration take action to restore this bedrock environmental protection," which "plays a critical role in keeping our communities and our environment healthy and safe."

Blasting former President Donald Trump's attempts to weaken the law as "clearly nothing more than a handout to corporate polluters," Fields added that "we look forward to the coming phase 2 rule-making, and encourage CEQ to finalize the strongest NEPA regulations possible, as soon as possible."

Earthjustice president Abigail Dillen called NEPA "our core framework for transparent decision-making informed by the best science and the lived experience of impacted people and communities," and said that "by reinstating the long-standing definitions of direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts, [CEQ] is making federal agencies responsible for addressing the reality of environmental injustice, ecosystem collapse, and our climate emergency."

In addition to doing that, CEQ explained in a statement, the regulation "restores the full authority of agencies to work with communities to develop and analyze alternative approaches that could minimize environmental and public health costs."

Further, the policy "establishes CEQ's NEPA regulations as a floor, rather than a ceiling, for the environmental review standards that federal agencies should be meeting," the council said. "This proposal restores the ability of federal agencies to tailor their NEPA procedures, consistent with the CEQ NEPA regulations, to help meet the specific needs of their agencies, the public, and stakeholders."

"Restoring these basic community safeguards will provide regulatory certainty, reduce conflict, and help ensure that projects get built right the first time," said CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory. "Patching these holes in the environmental review process will help projects get built faster, be more resilient, and provide greater benefits—to people who live nearby."

CEQ will now work on broader phase 2 changes to the 1970 law.

"Good NEPA process requires robust community engagement, rigorous analysis, and public disclosure, which leads to government accountability, better projects with more community buy-in, and less litigation," said Dillen. "As we transition to a clean energy future, following NEPA can and must help us to advance equitable solutions, including resilient and innovative new infrastructure."

"While this phase 1 rule represents an essential step forward, the Biden administration cannot stop here," she said. "The upcoming phase 2 rule-making process is an opportunity for the administration to engage directly with those most impacted by polluting industries and reflect their voices in a final rule that delivers on the commitments this administration has made to environmental justice communities."

Dillen vowed that Earthjustice "will continue working with the Biden administration throughout the upcoming phase 2 rule-making process to ensure we tap NEPA's full potential to address the unprecedented environmental challenges we face now."

Describing the rule as "a bright spot after a dark winter for Biden's climate agenda," The Washington Post noted:

About $555 billion in proposed climate action has been stalled in Congress since last winter, when a lack of support from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) derailed the Democrats' spending bill. With Congress taking little action on climate change, the administration has focused on using the president's executive authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

But a forthcoming ruling by the Supreme Court in West Virginia v. EPA, a case that will be decided this year, could frustrate the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to shift the United States toward cleaner sources of energy. And since Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices soaring, Biden has faced an additional challenge: an emboldened fossil fuel industry calling for expanded drilling on federal land. Pressure to lower gas prices has pushed the president, who campaigned on tackling climate change, to encourage more domestic oil and gas production.

Along with winning praise from environmental activists, Biden's NEPA rule was celebrated by some members of Congress—including Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.).

"The previous administration stripped and gutted NEPA protections, effectively blocking federal agencies from taking climate change and public input into account when they make major decisions that affect our environment and the health of our communities," Grijalva said. "I'm glad this administration recognizes how egregiously wrong those actions were and is moving forward to restore the protections that have helped protect our environment while promoting sustainable development for decades."

"But the work here isn't done," he added. "With investments from the historic Infrastructure law going out the door as we speak, this administration needs to complete the second phase of rule-making and they need to do it soon. Without a strengthened NEPA and public engagement process, these investments could very well fall short of their full potential to advance equity and environmental justice for all communities."


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