US to revive broad reviews of pipelines, leasing

President Joe Biden's administration is seeking to reinstate wide-ranging reviews of climate effects when federal regulators are deciding whether to authorize new oil and gas pipelines, expand federal fossil fuel leasing or make other major decisions.

The proposed changes, issued today, would formally undo a sweeping rollback to regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that former president Donald Trump issued in 2020 that are not fully in effect. The move has won praise from environmentalists but revived complaints about increasing "red tape" during the construction of highways and other infrastructure.

"At a time when our country is desperately trying to build, why announce these changes now and throw states and private builders into limbo?" US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia) said.

Federal agencies tasked with reviewing highway projects, authorizing pipelines and managing oil leasing must take a "hard look" at the potential environmental effects by preparing reviews under NEPA. Decades of court rulings and on-the-ground implementation guide what regulators must evaluate, resulting in reviews that can take years to finish and exceed hundreds of pages for complex projects.

Trump tried to reset implementation of NEPA and focus on near-term effects, while halting the review of effects such as climate change that are geographically distant and remote in time. But many agencies have yet to implement the 2020 changes. Biden's proposal would undo the rollback, while a subsequent "Phase 2" rule would pursue broader changes.

"The basic community safeguards we are proposing to restore would help ensure that American infrastructure gets built right the first time and delivers real benefits — not harms — to people who live nearby," White House Council on Environmental Quality chair Brenda Mallory said.

The White House proposal would reinstate a requirement for federal agencies to consider direct, indirect and cumulative effects of their actions, reversing the 2020 changes that virtually eliminated the need to look into potential effects on climate change. The proposal would set baseline standards under NEPA but instruct federal agencies they could prepare more robust reviews when warranted.

The proposal is unlikely to affect the Biden administration's work on high-profile reviews where work has already started, such as reviews of the 750,000 b/d Dakota Access crude pipeline, a planned rerouting of the 540,000 b/d Line 5 crude and NGL pipeline, and a supplemental review of oil leasing within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

The $1.5 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is awaiting a final vote in the US House of Representatives, includes language to fast-track environmental reviews under NEPA for a subset of highways and other projects funded under the legislation.