In a long-expected move, the Biden administration on April 19 restored federal regulations requiring rigorous environmental reviews of proposed major infrastructure projects, undoing policies of the Trump White House aimed at streamlining the process laid out in the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The NEPA process was notorious for its red tape and litigation, which put many projects on hold indefinitely and led to the abandonment of numerous others. Over the decades, environmental groups became skillful at using NEPA to scuttle highways, bridges, mining operations, oil and gas pipelines, oil and gas wells, and anything else not to their liking. Large infrastructure projects require significant upfront capital investments, and the prospect of drawn-out litigation and bureaucratic foot-dragging common to NEPA gave investors an incentive to put their money elsewhere.
In 2020, the Trump White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued new rules designed to speed up a process that could take years just to get a permit. Under the 2020 changes to NEPA, timelines for environmental reviews and public comments were shortened, and federal officials were allowed to disregard a projects “cumulative effects” on such things as climate change.
The Return of NEPA Red Tape
Trump’s initiative was condemned by green groups who said it would weaken environmental protections and undercut efforts to combat climate change. They welcomed Biden’s actions to restore the pre-Trump NEPA.
“NEPA plays a critical role in keeping our communities and our environment healthy and safe, and Donald Trump’s attempts to weaken NEPA were clearly nothing more than a handout to corporate polluters,” Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club’s national director of policy, advocacy, and legal affairs, told CNBC.
At first glance, she has reason to be happy. But her celebration may be premature.
NEPA: A Double-Edged Sword
While Biden’s new rule will no doubt be used to sideline fossil-fuel projects, a tougher NEPA may turn out to be a double-edged sword. The restored lengthy environmental reviews and opportunities for endless litigation can now be turned against so-called clean energy projects. With the Biden administration and ESG-driven investment banks eager to fund renewable energy projects all across the country, citizens groups opposed to having giant solar arrays, industrial-scale wind projects, and high-voltage powerlines marring the countryside, can now use Biden’s tougher NEPA to protect their communities from unwanted renewable energy intruders.
Local resistance to wind turbines shooting hundreds of feet into the air and to placing thousands of solar panels with backup batteries on rural lands is picking up steam across the US. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that over 200 such projects have been scuttled by developers in response to local resistance. There are already reports that environmental groups have told the Biden CEQ that its strict requirements it has put into NEPA regulations could help torpedo green energy projects.
Unintended consequences are paying the Biden White House a visit.