JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported, the Trump administration
wants to roll back part of a bedrock environmental law to make it easier to build certain infrastructure
projects, like roads, mines and pipelines. As William Brangham reports, industry has
long pushed for these changes to reduce what they argue are endless delays. But environmental groups call this proposal
a betrayal of the law’s original intent. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Environmental reviews can
seem arcane to many, but they can also be quite consequential. Perhaps the most famous case in recent years
was the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline. That battle has dragged out for years, and
those environmental reviews were a crucial part of the debate. Now the Trump administration is proposing
to overhaul the 50-year-old law that requires those reviews. It’s known as NEPA, the National
Environmental Policy Act. Some of the biggest proposed changes would
include exempting smaller projects from these reviews at all — projects that don’t use
significant federal money would also be exempt — limiting the length of many reviews to
just two years, and allowing agencies to ignore the cumulative impact of proposed projects,
which could include a project’s potential contribution to climate change. Amy Harder covers energy and climate for Axios,
and she joins me now. Welcome back to the “NewsHour.” AMY HARDER, Axios: Thanks for having me on. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, before we get to the
administration’s proposed changes, can you just remind us? This law was signed 50-something years ago
by Richard Nixon. What’s the intent, the original intent of the law? AMY HARDER: Well, this was signed in 1970,
along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency itself by President Nixon. And the purpose of it is to make sure that
everything that the government has a hand in is good to the environment. So, whether
it’s a road or a bridge or an oil pipeline, there needs to be an environmental review
on that. And that’s why both backers and detractors in this law say it is one of the most litigated
laws in America. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, for 50 years, this law
has been in place, and if you want to do — build a bridge, dig a mine, you have to somehow
prove on paper, here’s what the impact of my project would be? AMY HARDER: Right. They’re called environmental
impact statements. And if you were following the Keystone XL
fight closely, as I was for the last decade, you would know that that fight was all about
the EIS and supplemental EISes and supplemental EISes. There were multiple of those written. And that’s the argument that Trump and others
have cited for reasons why this law needs to be overhauled. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: OK. So, as you were saying,
the Trump administration comes along and has been hearing these complaints, as you’re saying,
that this causes endless delays, paperwork, it’s just really not worth — it’s sort of
gumming up the works. What are they proposing to change? AMY HARDER: Well, as you said, initially,
one of the biggest changes is to exempt certain projects, the ones that don’t require a lot
of government funding. Now, experts and others are still going through
the weeds of what this proposal would mean, but that could likely mean that things like
the Keystone pipeline may not be subject to environment or reviews at all. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Because there’s no federal
money or federal role in that, beyond permitting it. AMY HARDER: Right. Right, because Keystone
was a project by a private company. All they needed was the governmental approval. And so that could — that could be a sea change
for oil and gas pipelines across the country and other energy projects. Now, I should emphasize that, with the announcement
today, the president and others didn’t focus on oil and gas at all. They focused on other
things that I think people care more about, frankly, like highways and schools and things
like that, that I think people realize and notice perhaps more than a pipeline. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the changes, I know,
is, they’re also saying that reviews don’t have to necessarily look at the long-term,
downstream consequences of a project, meaning, if I want to put a bridge across a wetland
or a pipeline across parts of Kansas, I’m just looking at what that pipeline would do
to the literal nearby territory, not what it might mean five years down the road or
what it might mean for a community in the next county over. Is that right? AMY HARDER: Correct. And so administration officials today were
careful to say that the words climate change actually aren’t in the proposal at all, and
that’s correct. But courts have traditionally interpreted
cumulative effects to include climate change. So by excluding cumulative reviews, they’re
essentially excluding climate change. However, that doesn’t preclude companies from
going above and beyond and doing consideration of climate change. And I think perhaps some
companies will, but a lot of the smaller companies or those who think they don’t need to, they
won’t, and, of course, the government won’t be there to tell them to do that. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And, as you might expect,
we have seen environmental groups across the board, up and down, large and small, decry
these proposed changes. What’s their principal concern with all this? AMY HARDER: Well, I think there’s a couple
of them. I think the first about the fact that this
could exempt from entire environmental review things like pipelines would be significant.
Fighting pipelines across the country have been a key environmental tactic since the
middle of the Obama administration. And so while Trump and other people today
didn’t focus on pipelines, that could actually be a big impact to this law. And so it could
leave environmentalists and others hamstrung in terms of what they can fight. The other, of course, is the actual consideration
of climate change. I think some worry that, if you don’t consider climate change, will
you build a pipeline where flooding happens regularly? And I think, again, that that responsibility
will fall onto the burden of the corporation pushing the project, and will the corporation
do it? I think self-regulation is, of course, a very
controversial thing. That has not proven out so well in the past. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Is there a way you can help
us fact-check the concerns that industry has said all along, that this law really does
gum up the works? The administration pointed today to the example
of a bridge, I believe it was, in North Carolina that they argued took 20 years to build. Is
it true that this law really does get in the way of major projects? AMY HARDER: I think, with a lot of things,
it depends, right? So I think, in some cases, yes, definitely,
this law has been on the books for 50 years. There’s been, really — I think, other than
a 1986 change, there hasn’t been a lot of reform or reexamination of it. So I do think
the administration is very much in the right to say that there have been examples of where
bureaucracy has been run amok. Does that mean you do away with the entire
law and make it so projects that don’t get government funding should haven’t to be reviewed?
I think critics would say that that would be going way too far. But I think, as with a lot of things in Washington,
middle ground is not always what — where things end up. You either do extreme one way
or extreme to the other. And I think today we’re seeing the pendulum of this type of
regulation review being swung far more to where industry wants it. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, as with all things,
this is not the final word. These are proposed changes. What happens next? AMY HARDER: Well, the next logistical step
is to have some public hearings and then a final regulation by — before the election. If a Democrat wins, you can be sure that this
will be swiftly repealed. But, longer term, this could invite even maybe more lawsuits. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Amy Harder of Axios, thank
you very much. AMY HARDER: Thank you.

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