San Francisco Chronicle
By Kurtis Alexander
SAN FRANCISCO — The Trump administration’s sweeping plan to ease environmental review of highways, power plants and other big projects may be less consequential in California, where state law puts checks on new development.
By no means, however, would California go unaffected. Logging, drilling and mining in the Golden State, as well as building a wall at the nation’s southern border, could be much easier to do if the president has his way.
The White House announced Thursday it is moving ahead with rollbacks to the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law designed to reduce the negative effects of development.
The legislation, which requires developers to outline potential impacts of projects before going forward, was signed by President Richard Nixon after the catastrophic 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
The regulation has been credited as much as any with heading off harm to land, water and wildlife, but is equally criticized by industry as costly and burdensome.”
Speaking at a news conference in Washington, President Trump called the law “big government at its absolute worst,” noting how difficult it can be to get vital infrastructure built. It’s the president’s latest strike at the country’s environmental policies and marks the federal government’s biggest push against the National Environmental Policy Act in decades.
The administration is proposing to limit the scope of projects that require environmental review as well as the length of time it takes to do them. It’s also proposing to remove certain considerations from the planning process, such as the “cumulative” effects of a project — many say that means overlooking the impacts of climate change.
“From day one, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority,” Trump said at the White House. “We want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways bigger, better, faster, and we want to build them at less cost.”
California has its own requirements for new projects. Known as the California Environmental Quality Act, the law was signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan the same year the National Environmental Policy Act took effect and goes even further to ensure that projects are studied — and revised — to limit potential harm.
CEQA, however, doesn’t cover projects on federal land. If Trump’s rollbacks take effect, state law would still govern most highway, port and pipeline work, which inevitably crosses state and private lands, but it wouldn’t regulate such projects as timber production and mineral extraction on holdings of the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service or Bureau of Land Management, legal experts say.
Trump’s proposed border wall could also escape CEQA, according to David Pettit, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
No state has a state environmental law as tough as CEQA, and a lot of states don’t have anything at all,” Pettit said. But “if the feds are using federal land to build a wall … CEQA doesn’t apply.”
Others worry that the weakening of federal regulations could spill into California.
“Sure, we have the protection of CEQA here, but CEQA is also under attack,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club’s California chapter. “Industries are going to feel emboldened to try to weaken California’s environmental laws.”
The proposed changes, which are scheduled to appear Friday in the Federal Register, call for shrinking the environmental review process to two years, a major revision considering that a review can now drag on a decade. The proposal also calls for exempting certain projects from reviews, such as those that don’t get federal funding.
For projects that continue to face review, the changes would require evaluation only of direct and “foreseeable” impacts, which environmentalists say is a way to sideline the implications of climate change. Under the proposal, new projects could go forward with little consideration of how rising seas or increased wildfire risk, for example, might affect them.
“We cannot afford to go backwards and ignore climate change in decision-making,” Janis Searles Jones, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, said. “We must work with local communities to dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and require federal projects to be resilient to unavoidable climate impacts.”
The changes to the National Environmental Policy Act are subject to a 60-day comment period as well as at least two public hearings. Final rules are not expected until later in the year.
States, including California, as well as environmental groups are already threatening lawsuits to block the revisions, which would probably push the issue into next year, meaning they hinge on Trump’s re-election.
“With the Trump administration’s proposal, we can expect more environmental destruction, more natural disasters and an acceleration of climate change,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
We’ll remind President Trump again: if you try to backslide on the safeguards protecting our nation’s environment and put polluters in the driver’s seat, we will hold you accountable.”
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