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Trump tries to pave the way for development by accelerating environmental reviews

President Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday to fulfill his goal of “expediting environmental reviews and approvals” to fast track an effort to “fix our country, our roadways and bridges.”

The order said that too often, big government and commercial projects are snagged by agency processes and procedures that costs jobs and money. Under the order, agencies that undertake environmental and other analyses before greenlighting development should work with “maximum efficiency and effectiveness” to complete them.

As part of the order, the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality will decide whether a project should be given national priority within 30 days of a request, triggering an expedited approval process. If an agency fails to meet the deadline for review, an agency head will have to explain the tardiness to the chair.

Trump’s move came a day after placing a freeze on all grants and contracts from the Environmental Protection Agency, possibly suspending efforts to improve local air quality in some parts of the nation.

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The actions caused alarm in the environmental and academic communities, with environmental groups and university professors expressing deep concern. Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit group, said Trump declared “war on the environment” in his first week on the job. “All our fears about the Trump presidency are being confirmed this week,” said Wenonah Hauter, the group’s executive director.

Trump’s order was vague on exactly how agencies will expedite analyses of projects, but the order said it will be done within existing legal frameworks.

The largest hurdle to fast development is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It calls for extensive analysis of development to determine its impact to public health and the environment, including whether it might hurt air quality or foul water.

Legal experts said Trump could easily maneuver around NEPA to proceed with other executive orders he signed Tuesday that would revive the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. The Obama administration rejected plans for the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015, and last month it blocked the final leg of the Dakota Access pipeline project, which Native American groups have been protesting.

Trump seeks to revive Dakota Access, Keystone XL oil pipelines

The experts said that in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an executive order requiring a review for projects such as pipelines that cross the U.S. border. Executive Order 11423 covered bridges, tunnels, roadways, rail, livestock and even bicycle crossings. The State Department used its authority to undertake the NEPA review of the Keystone pipeline.

Trump could lift it with his own directive, effectively revoking Johnson’s order. “I don’t think there’s a real way to challenge that,” said Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. “That would remove a very meaningful federal review process for cross-border pipeline construction.”

The NEPA review “was the main reason the process dragged on for so many years,” said Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity. As Hartl read the new order, he said it appears an analysis of Keystone will be left to the State Department, but it must complete within 60 days a process that once took up to a year.

“NEPA is the Magna Carta of the environmental world,” said Scott Edwards, co-director of Food and Water Watch’s legal division. “It’s not surprising that [Trump] would begin his presidency by attacking the blueprint for environmental protection in this country.”

In a defiant stance, Edwards said he hopes the administration scuttles environmental review processes and plows ahead. “It allows us to sue the agency for shoddy analysis under NEPA. Trump thinks he’s the CEO of America. He can’t ignore the legal process.”

The basic principle of democracy is what NEPA is all about, said Sharon Buccino, director of the Land and Water program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NEPA process includes public notice, participation, comment on project proposals and environmental review.

But the president has discretion, she said. He has the authority to expedite the process so that all those considerations can be completed as quickly as possible, as long as agencies “justify their decisions with a reasonable basis. They can’t be arbitrary.”

Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

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