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President Trump Announces Changes To National Environmental Policy Act Regulations

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

President Trump has taken one of his most aggressive actions yet to weaken the country's environmental laws. Today the administration announced changes to speed up construction of big infrastructure projects such as oil pipelines and highways. Critics say that move will sideline concerns about climate change and the effects of pollution on poor and minority communities. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The president was at a UPS facility in Atlanta to announce dramatic changes to the regulations that govern the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. He traveled to Atlanta because his administration wants a local freeway expansion project to be among the first approved under the new regulations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For decades, the single biggest obstacle to building a modern transportation system has been the mountains and mountains of bureaucratic red tape in Washington, D.C.

BRADY: NEPA was signed into law by President Richard Nixon 50 years ago. It requires federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of proposed projects before they're approved. It also gives the public and interest groups the ability to comment on those evaluations. The new regulations set a time limit of two years on environmental reviews, less than half the time they now take on average. It limits the number and types of projects that fall under NEPA. It puts new limits on public participation and makes it harder to file legal challenges.

While Trump focused on building new highways, the oil industry also sees big benefits in today's announcement. A series of pipeline projects have recently been dealt setbacks related to NEPA reviews. Mike Sommers heads the American Petroleum Institute and says the existing NEPA process has become too cumbersome.

MIKE SOMMERS: We feel if we're going to get our economy moving again post-pandemic that this kind of permitting reform is going to be necessary.

BRADY: Environmental groups roundly criticized today's announcement. Attorney Sharon Buccino with the Natural Resources Defense Council says the new regulations essentially gut NEPA and take power away from the country's most vulnerable people.

SHARON BUCCINO: NEPA gives poor and communities of color a say in the projects that will define their communities for decades to come. Rather than listen, the Trump administration's plan aims to silence such voices.

BRADY: There's a long history of polluting highways, pipelines and industrial plants being disproportionately located in these neighborhoods. Buccino believes the Trump administration's new regulations for NEPA are illegal. And she says they will be challenged in court, which means November's election could determine whether these new regulations remain in effect. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has vowed to reverse dozens of environmental rollbacks Trump has made while in office.

Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.