US reforms environmental law to speed up clean energy, infrastructure approval

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By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Tuesday reformed the U.S. environmental review process for major projects which officials said would speed up approval of everything from transmission of power from wind and solar farms to semiconductor manufacturing.

The reforms are the second and final phase of the administration of President Joe Biden’s adjustments to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, after former President Donald Trump overhauled the bedrock environmental law in 2021 for the first time in decades.

NEPA, a 1969 law that requires environmental reviews for major projects, is a frequent focus of litigation that can delay construction for years.

The White House’s Council for Environmental Quality said the reforms bring efficiencies to reviews including clear one- and two-year deadlines for federal agencies, page limits for reviews, and tasking lead agencies with coordinating the process.

It also creates new ways for agencies to establish so-called categorical exclusions, the fastest and most common form of environmental review, such as for transmission lines in areas where the land has already been disturbed and does not require more clearing of trees and habitats.

“We are making reforms in this rule that will help speed infrastructure and permitting, but without losing sight of the environmental and health benefits we need to protect,” Brenda Mallory, the chair of the CEQ told reporters.

NEPA “was not intended to be used as a roadblock to stop or slow, good projects, it was also not intended to merely be a paperwork exercise.”

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The reforms build on initial work to reform the NEPA process finalized in 2022, when the White House began to reverse Trump’s overhaul. Those changes required federal agencies to consider the direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts of proposed projects or actions, including a full evaluation of climate impacts.

Some industry groups had complained that a draft of the current reforms would complicate and delay the review process which would lead to litigation and further delays.

In response to a question about that, an official told reporters that the White House is meeting with federal agencies starting this week “about what the new material encompasses and how we’re going to make sure that it does not undermine our overall goal to have the projects occur more quickly.”

An environmentalist praised the changes, saying Trump had weakened NEPA. “It is a relief to finally see it revitalized,” said Christy Goldfuss, executive director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. (This story has been refiled to remove an extraneous word in the dateline)