Thursday, January 9, 2020
PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP IS COMMITTED TO MODERNIZING ENVIRONMENTAL POLICIES AND PAVING THE WAY FOR VITAL INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS
BACKGROUND PRESS CALL BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS ON THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S PROPOSED UPDATE TO NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT (NEPA) REGULATIONS
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 9, 2020
BACKGROUND PRESS CALL
BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS
ON THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S PROPOSED UPDATE TO
NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT (NEPA) REGULATIONS
9:34 A.M. EST
MR. CANTRELL: Thank you, Operator. Good morning, everyone. And thank you for joining this morning's briefing to preview the Trump administration's proposed update to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, regulations.
This briefing will be conducted by Secretary of the Interior Department David Bernhardt, and Chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality, or CEQ, Mary Neumayr.
We will begin with opening remarks on the record. As time allows, we will follow with question and answer on background, attributable to a senior administration official.
If a subject matter expert speaks during the briefing, he or she will be on background, attributable to a senior administration official.
All information is embargoed until 11:00 a.m. this morning. With that, we will begin with CEQ Chairman Neumayr.
CHAIRMAN NEUMAYR: Thank you for joining us on today's call. Today, the Council on Environmental Quality will be releasing a proposed rule titled, "Update to the Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act." The proposed rule is scheduled to appear in the Federal Register tomorrow, and will have a 60-day comment period.
I'd like to take this opportunity to provide background on the proposed rule and highlight some of its provisions. As many of you may know, the National Environmental Policy Act was signed into law in 1970, and requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of proposed major federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.
NEPA may apply when a federal agency needs to issue a permit or other approval or when an agency provides federal funding for a project or activity.
The NEPA review process can impact a wide variety of projects affecting American's everyday lives -- from the construction of roads, highways, bridges, and airports; to water infrastructure; conventional and renewable energy projects; agriculture, land, forest, and fishery management activity; and environmental restoration projects.
NEPA is a procedural statute that ensures that, for major federal actions, agencies consider the significant environmental effects of their proposed actions and inform the public about their decision-making.
CEQ issued regulations for federal agencies to implement NEPA in 1978. Other than one limited substantive amendment in 1986, CEQ has not updated these regulations in over 40 years.
Over time, implementation of NEPA has become increasingly complex and time consuming for federal agencies; state, local, and tribal agencies; project applicants; and average Americans seeking permits or approvals from the Federal government.
CEQ has found that the average length of an Environmental Impact Statement is over 600 pages, and the average time for federal agencies to conduct these NEPA reviews is four and a half years and can be significantly longer. For example, reviews conducted by the Federal Highway Administration take over seven years, and many have taken a decade or more to complete.
NEPA is the most litigated area of environmental law. Delays due to lengthy reviews and related litigation increase costs for project applicants, states, tribes, localities, and taxpayers. Delays deter investments, and delays make our country less economically competitive.
In 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order 13807, establishing a One Federal Decision policy, including a two-year goal for completing environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects and directing CEQ to consider revisions to its regulations.
In 2018, CEQ issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, requesting comment on potential updates to its regulations. CEQ received over 12,500 comments, which have informed CEQ’s proposed rule.
CEQ’s proposed rule would modernize and clarify the CEQ regulations to facilitate more efficient, effective, and timely NEPA reviews by clarifying regulatory requirements; incorporating key elements of the One Federal Decision policy; codifying certain case law and CEQ guidance; revising the regulations to reflect current technologies and agency practices; eliminating obsolete provisions; and improving the format and readability of the regulations.
The proposed rule seeks to reduce paperwork and delays and promote better decision-making, consistent with NEPA’s environmental policy.
In particular, CEQ’s proposal would modernize, simplify, and accelerate the NEPA process by establishing presumptive time limits of two years for completion of Environmental Impact Statements and one year for completing environmental assessments; specifying presumptive page limits; requiring joint schedules, a single Environmental Impact Statement, and a single record of decision, where appropriate, for Environmental Impact Statements involving multiple agencies; strengthening the role of the lead agency and requiring senior agency officials to timely resolve disputes to avoid delays; and promoting the use of modern technologies for information sharing and public outreach.
CEQ’s proposal would also clarify terms, application, and scope of NEPA review by providing direction regarding the threshold consideration of whether NEPA applies to a particular action; requiring earlier solicitation of input from the public to ensure informed decision-making by federal agencies; requiring comments to be specific and timely to ensure appropriate consideration; requiring agencies to summarize alternatives, analyses, and information submitted by commenters, and to certify consideration of submitted information in the Record of Decision; simplifying the definition of environmental effects and clarifying that effects must be reasonably foreseeable and require a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action; stating that analysis of cumulative effects is not required under NEPA; clarifying that “major federal action” does not include non-discretionary decisions and non-federal projects -- meaning those with minimal federal funding or involvement -- and clarifying that “reasonable alternatives” requiring consideration must be technically and economically feasible.
The proposal would also enhance coordination with states, tribes, and localities, specifically by reducing duplication by facilitating use of documents required by other statutes or prepared by state, tribal, or local agencies; ensuring appropriate consultation with affected tribal governments and agencies; and eliminating the provisions in the current regulations that limit tribal interests to reservations.
Finally, CEQ’s proposal would reduce unnecessary burdens and delays by facilitating use of efficient reviews, including categorical exclusions and environmental assessments; allowing agencies to establish procedures for adopting other agencies’ categorical exclusions; and allowing applicants and contractors to assume a greater role in preparing Environmental Impact Statements under the supervision of an agency.
The proposed rule would not exclude consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in NEPA analyses and invites comment on whether to codify aspects of CEQ’s draft greenhouse gas guidance issued for public comment last year.
It's important to note that the proposal would reform the process of gathering and considering information on environmental effects, but would not change any substantive environmental law or regulation, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Again, NEPA is a procedural statute.
Nothing in the proposal would eliminate or diminish the protections that Congress has enacted to safeguard our environment and the American people.
An improved environmental review and permitting process will allow us to continue our nation’s leadership in environmental protection and to enhance the quality of life for current and future generations of Americans.
Again, in closing, there will be a 60-day comment period for the proposed rule. We welcome robust public comment from all stakeholders. CEQ is planning on hosting two public hearings on the proposed rule -- one in Denver, Colorado; and one in Washington, D.C.
Further information on opportunities for public engagement will be available on CEQ’s website.
And with that, I will be happy to answer any questions you may have after Secretary Bernhardt provides additional information.
SECRETARY BERNHARDT: Hi, this is David Bernhardt. I’m the Secretary of the Interior. The Chairman did an excellent job highlighting the act and our proposed changes. And really, from the first day of the Trump administration, the President has provided a bold vision for commonsense deregulatory actions that allow government agencies to better serve the American people.
And the President has been crystal clear that we must ensure that we have healthy -- a healthy environment with clean air and clean water.
And the step we’re taking today, which will ultimately lead to final regulations, I believe, will hit a home run in delivering better results to the American people by cutting red tape that has paralyzed commonsense decision-making for a generation.
As the Chairman said, NEPA serves a noble purpose. And at its heart, it establishes a process to ensure that the government’s decisions are informed by an understanding of the possible environmental consequences that its actions will cause, considers alternatives to a proposed action and their environmental consequences, and secures input from the public. And those core actions are preserved and continued in the proposal that is coming out.
When I arrived at the Department of the Interior in 2017, it took, on average, five years to complete environmental reviews for our projects within BLM. And we have some that are out to 15 and 16 years. And these documents were often hundreds and even thousands of pages alone -- pages long.
And given that the purpose of NEPA is to ensure we make an informed decision, when I asked our senior managers if they were reading these documents that were several thousand pages long, they said, emphatically, no -- which does not serve the purpose at NEPA at all.
The consequences of the government being stuck in place are far ranging. Indian students’ ability to have new schools that are safe and updated are delayed by environmental reviews taking too long for school construction. Our parks’ ability to have great visitor centers is slowed by needless delay. Our conservationists’ ability to restore habitat to wildlife -- I have a wildlife deer management plan that has been in the NEPA process for over eight years. Our firefighters’ ability to establish sensible fuel breaks and treat our forests from devastating wildfire -- it takes years to complete environmental reviews before we proceed.
A rancher’s ability to know whether they will be able to graze their livestock on public lands depends on the timing of our environmental reviews. A farmer’s ability to know that they have a secure water supply for their crops is based on how long it takes for us to do our environmental reviews. And the list goes on and on and on.
And the reality is that the needless red tape has, over time, lowered the expectations of American exceptionalism and excellence, and that is backwards. And this is a big step forward for the American people and for common sense.
I really thank the President and the Chairman for their bold leadership to begin to move forward on a process that meets the purposes of the act, but does so with some commonsense parameters.
MR. CANTRELL: Thank you both. Operator, we will now take some questions.
Q Yes, hi. This is Maya Weber with S&P Global Platts. I wanted to ask how this would affect reviews of interstate natural gas pipelines and whether the definition of major federal actions would then exclude them from NEPA reviews?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This proposal does not exclude a specific federal action from -- from activity. It sets up -- and NEPA, for a long time -- certain things are not necessarily covered under NEPA today -- certain mandatory provisions of law, for example.
But to the extent that it's a discretionary authorization, that authorization will be examined. And the cause that is reasonably foreseeable -- that’s a consequence of that action -- needs to be considered within the entire context of the human and natural environment.
And so, basically, in general, it's a look at, "Hey, what is happening today? And what is the additional change of this proposal on it?" And that’s the way -- that’s the way it works today, and that’s the way it will work tomorrow.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, the proposal sets forth the framework for a wide range and variety of actions that may be subject to NEPA, applies broadly to infrastructure.
Q Hi, Lisa Friedman from the New York Times. Thanks so much. Can you talk a little bit about the thinking behind the (inaudible) Cumulative Effects not required underneath them, and what it means for climate change, that only reasonably foreseeable, reasonable (inaudible) causal relationship? And can you explain that language and what that means in the context of climate change?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the definition of "effects" is a definition that has been the subject of substantial confusion. And so, in the proposal, what we have done is to eliminate the terminology "direct, indirect, and cumulative," and simplify the definition to focus on identifying and considering effects that are reasonably foreseeable, and have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action.
As I said earlier, the proposal does not exclude consideration of greenhouse gas emissions, and we have included an invitation to comment on whether there are aspects of the greenhouse gas guidance that CEQ issued last year that should be codified in the regulations.
Q Hi, this is (inaudible) with Argus Media. I didn’t really hear a clear answer to Maya's question about whether pipelines would be covered under NEPA after this. So, Keystone XL -- would NEPA apply to Keystone XL? Yes or no?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don’t have a specific company proposal in front of me, but I would say this: that if it would have required NEPA yesterday, it will require NEPA under the current -- or the new proposal.
Q Hi, this is Scott Waldman from E&E News. Can you tell me if federal projects will still be required to consider future climate conditions in the planning stage? And doesn’t that potentially place taxpayer dollars at risk, if sea-level rise and other considerations are not considered?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. That’s a -- the reality of the regulations, when you read them, is the proposed actions -- whatever they are, whether they're planning, or infrastructure, or a school construction -- those -- the task that's necessary is, "I'm about…" -- the government is about to take an action. It needs to look at its action and the impacts that its action will have in the context of the entire human and natural environment.
And so that means everything. And, you know, for water management, what we're dealing with -- that’s everything. And you look at it in the context and you say, "What is the consequence before the action? What is the consequence after?" -- so that a decision-maker can know those consequences, alternative proposals and their consequences, and make a fully informed decision. That's -- that's exactly what we do, and that is exactly what we will continue to do.
Q Hello, my name is Kathleen Stubbs. I'm a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun. I was calling to ask: What, if any, is the connection between the proposed changes and Trump's comments on Wednesday about not needing to rely on Iran for oil in the future?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No connection.
MR. CANTRELL: Operator, we'll take one last question, please.
OPERATOR: There are no further questions in the queue.
MR. CANTRELL: Great. Thank you, everyone. This will conclude our call.
Again, opening remarks were on the record, and the Q&A portion was on background, attributable to a senior administration official. All information is, again, embargoed until 11:00 A.M. this morning.
As always, direct all further questions to the White House Press Office. Thank you everyone for joining this morning.
END 9:55 A.M. EST
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 9, 2020
Statement from the Press Secretary Regarding Border Wall Victory
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has lifted an illegitimate nationwide injunction entered by a lower court, and in doing so has allowed vital border wall construction to move forward using military construction funds. This is a victory for the rule of law. We are committed to keeping our borders secure, and we will finish the wall.