ATLANTA — President Donald Trump announced Wednesday, July 15, that he is rolling back a foundational Nixon-era environmental law that he says stifles infrastructure projects, but that is credited with ensuring decades of scrutiny of major projects and giving local communities a say.
Trump was in Atlanta to announce changes to the National Environmental Policy Act’s regulations for how and when authorities must conduct environmental reviews, making it easier to build highways, pipelines, chemical and solar plants, and other projects. The 1970 law changed environmental oversight in the U.S. by requiring federal agencies to consider whether a project would harm the air, land, water or wildlife, and giving the public the right of review and provide input. The president said the final rule will promote the rebuilding of America.
“Together we’re reclaiming America’s proud heritage as a nation of builders and a nation that can get things done,” Trump said.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) praised the Trump administration for finalizing the proposed rule, which the ATA said will speed up the review process for critically needed investments in the country’s roads and bridges.
“This is good news for truckers, the motoring public, our economy and the environment,” said Chris Spear, ATA president and CEO.
“It currently takes an average seven years for a highway construction project to get through federal permitting, which is counterproductive in the extreme,” Spear said. “This cumbersome review process presents an enormous obstacle to modernizing our outdated infrastructure, contributing to more traffic congestion and the harmful emissions that come with it.”
ATA noted that the trucking industry loses $74.5 billion every year to traffic congestion on the national highway system, which equates to 425,000 truck drivers sitting idle for an entire year — emitting a staggering 67 million tons of CO2.
“Infrastructure investment is a surefire way to reduce our nation’s environmental impact, and this action by President Trump will help accelerate construction projects that reduce waste and result in a more efficient and resilient supply chain and transportation system for decades to come,” said Randy Guillot, ATA chairman and president of Triple G Express and Southeastern Motor Freight.
“Of course, streamlining project approvals won’t matter if states don’t have the funding needed to plan projects and break ground,” Guillot continued. “COVID-19 has caused a 14% drop in Highway Trust Fund revenue, widening the investment gap and hurtling us closer to the funding cliff. If Congress fails to act this year on its constitutional responsibility, it risks derailing our economic recovery.”
Critics called the Republican president’s efforts a cynical attempt to limit the public’s ability to examine and influence proposed projects under one of the country’s bedrock environmental-protection laws.
“This may be the single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that works to save endangered species.
Trump has made slashing government regulation a hallmark of his presidency and held it out as a way to boost jobs. Environmental groups say the regulatory rollbacks threaten public health and make it harder to curb global warming. With Congress and the administration divided over how to increase infrastructure investment, the president is relying on his deregulation push to demonstrate progress.
Among the major changes are limiting when federal environmental reviews of projects are mandated, and capping how long federal agencies and the public have to evaluate and comment on any environmental impact of a project.
“We won’t get certain projects through for environmental reasons. They have to be environmentally sound. But you know what? We’re going to know in a year. We’re going to know in a year and a half. We’re not going to know in 20 years,” Trump said.
Opponents say the changes will have an inordinate impact on predominantly minority communities. More than 1 million African Americans live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities and face a cancer risk above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) level of concern from toxins emitted by those facilities, according to a 2017 study by the Clean Air Task Force and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
“Donald Trump is taking away the last lines of defense for front-line communities, and continues to demonstrate a total disregard for our environment and for those demanding racial and environmental justice,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
For his announcement, Trump chose Georgia, a swing state in the general election. Trump won the Republican-leaning state by 5 percentage points in 2016, but some polls show him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. This will be Trump’s ninth trip to Georgia and his sixth visit to Atlanta during his presidency.
The White House said the administration’s efforts will expedite the expansion of Interstate 75 near Atlanta, an important freight route where traffic can often slow to a crawl. The state will create two interstate lanes designed solely for commercial trucks. The state announced last fall, before the White House unveiled its proposed rule, that it was moving up the deadline for substantially completing the project to 2028.
Trump, who spoke at a UPS facility, said the project will save the company and its drivers an extraordinary number of hours a year.