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Remarks by President Trump on Proposed National Environmental Policy Act Regulations — Annotated

INSTRUCTIONS: To see the annotations, click on the text that is highlighted in yellow below; the relevant annotations will then appear on the right side of the screen.

BACKGROUND: Just over fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon signed the landmark National Environmental Policy Act into law, requiring consideration of environmental impacts in all federally run or funded projects. Last Thursday, January 9, President Trump joined with appointed leaders of his environmental agencies—Mary Neumayr of the Council of Environmental Quality, Andrew Wheeler of the Environmental Protection Agency, and David Bernhart of the Department of the Interior, along with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao–to unveil a through-going revision of the rules for implementing this law. Their speeches, along with the rule revision itself, thrust many environmental considerations decisively into the back seat.
In this annotation of the proceedings, the Environmental History Action Collaborative — a group of environmental historians and scholars — summarizes and updates the fact-checking by journalists, while supplying broader and deeper context for what was said, also not said. Our more critical assessment of the messages offered by this Administration’s environmental leadership serves as our way of honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act. Historians contributing to these annotations include Pete Andrews, Emily Pawley, Keith Pluymers, Chris Sellers, Adam Sowards, Jay Turner, and Ellen Griffith Spears.

Issued on January 9, 2020 at 11:19 A.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT:  Good morning, everyone.

PARTICIPANTS:  Good morning.

THE PRESIDENT:  Today, we’re taking another historic step in our campaign to slash job-killing regulations and improve the quality of life for all of our citizens.

In the past, many America’s — of America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process.  And I’ve been talking about it for a long time — where it takes many, many years to get something built — get something built — done in any way.  The builders are not happy.  Nobody is happy.  It takes 20 years.  It takes 30 years.  It take numbers that nobody would even believe.

These endless delays waste money, keep projects from breaking ground, and deny jobs to our nation’s incredible workers.

From day one, my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority.  And we want to build new roads, bridges, tunnels, highways bigger, better, faster, and we want to build them at less cost.

That is why, for the first time in over 40 years, today we are issuing a proposed new rule under the National Environmental Policy Act to completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions.  Now, we’re going to have very strong regulation, but it’s going to go very quickly.  And if it doesn’t pass, it’s going to not pass quickly.  It doesn’t have to take 10 years or much longer than that.

These proposed reforms will reduce traffic in our cities, connect our rural communities, and get Americans where they need to go more quickly and more safely.

We’re pleased to be joined by Secretary David Bernhardt, Secretary Elaine Chao, Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Mary Neumayr.  They’ve done a fantastic job on this.

Also with us are representatives of the American workers from across the country, including President of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, Sean McGarvey; President of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Jennifer Houston; President of the American Trucking Associations, Chris Spear; and many other leaders of labor and industry.

America is a nation of builders.  It took four years to build the Golden Gate Bridge, five years to build the Hoover Dam, and less than one year — can you believe that? — to build the Empire State Building.  Yet today, it can take more than 10 years just to get a permit to build a simple road — just a very simple road.  And usually, you’re not even able to get the permit.  It’s unusual when you get it.  It’s big government at its absolute worst, and other countries look at us and they can’t believe it.

For example, in North Carolina, it took 25 years to begin construction of the Marc Basnight Bridge.  In Alaska, improvements on a 15-mile stretch of Sterling Highway — the only road connecting local communities to the rest of the state, and a very dangerous area — it’s been delayed for over 15 years, but we’re getting it started.  In Washington State, it took two decades to finish environmental reviews for the runway at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Think of that.  It takes decades.

The United States will not be able to compete and prosper in the 21st century if we continue to allow a broken and outdated bureaucratic system hold us back from building what we need: the roads, the airports, the schools, everything.

Right now, it takes over seven years, and oftentimes much longer — and seven years is like record time — to complete approvals for a simple highway — the simplest of them.  With today’s proposed reforms, we will reduce that number by more than 70 percent.

We’ll cut the federal permitting timeline for major projects down to two years.  And ideally, we’re going to try and get even less than that.  So you’ll be — instead of 21, 22, 25, 8, 9, 12, 15 — we’re going to get it down to 2 years and maybe less, with strong regulation, especially environmental and safety regulation.  But we’ll get it down to a very low number.  And we’re going to do it fast.  We’re doing it with a rule change that just is being signed.

In the past, those seeking infrastructure permits have had to go to numerous federal departments all over — numerous.  And numerous means many, many.  Sometimes you get the same exact change, but you had to get them from different departments.  So you would go to these federal departments and agencies requesting approval from countless governmental bureaucrats, each of whom was empowered to hold up the process and leave urgently needed projects in limbo, and for the most part they wouldn’t get built.  If they did get built, it would take so many years and cost many times more.

But our new One Federal Decision policy — it’s called “One Federal Decision” — requires agencies to work closely together to promptly deliver one decision.  Yes.  The entire process will be completed; the entire federal government approval process will be done.

We’re also cutting red tape by allowing federal departments to increase the use of documentation prepared by state, tribal, and local governments.  This is just common sense and there’s no need to do all of the duplicate work.  There’s so much duplication.  You’d go for a permit.  You’d have to go for another permit.  They were all — they would turn out to be all the same permits; you’re just going to different agencies to get the same approval.

At the same time, we’re maintaining America’s world-class standards of environmental protection.  We have some of the cleanest air and cleanest water on Earth.  And for our country, the air is, right now, cleaner than it’s been in 40 years.  I guess you go before that, there was a lot less activity.  So we’re competing — I would imagine, 200 years ago, it was great.  (Laughter.)  Five hundred years ago, before we got here, it must have been really nice, right?  (Laughter.)  But in the last 40 years, it’s the cleanest right now.

By streamlining infrastructure approvals, we’ll further expand America’s unprecedented economic boom.  And that’s what we have: we have an economic boom.

We’ve created 7 million jobs, including over 700,000 construction jobs.  Unemployment has reached the lowest rate in over 51 years.

After years of stagnation, real wages have increased nearly 10 percent for low-income workers — the biggest beneficiaries.  Our regulation cuts are giving the average American household an extra $3,000 per year.  And if you look at the tax cuts and all of the other cuts, it’s close to $10,000 a year — with all of the cuts that we’re getting.  And that’s for an average median-income family — $10,000.

You know, I’ve talked about past administrations — the one was $475, and the other one was $975 — the last two, $975.  And we’re $10,000, and the number is actually higher that — than that, if you include certain regulations that we got cut.  So that’s an amazing thing, and that’s one of the reasons consumers are doing so well and leading us so strongly in this boom that we’re in.

But this is just the beginning.  We’ll not stop until our nation’s gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again.  It used to be the envy of the world, and now we’re like a third-world country.  It’s really sad.  You get approval — they even get financing for jobs, and then they can’t build them for 15 years, and then it ends up costing five times more than it was supposed to cost.

So I’d now — now like to ask Chairwoman Mary Neumayr to say a few words.  And we’re going to have another couple of speakers, and then we’ll take some questions.  Go ahead.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Come on over here, Mary.  (Applause.)

CHAIRMAN NEUMAYR:  Thank you, Mr. President.  President Trump promised a more efficient permitting process so that Americans receive timely decisions on permits for vital infrastructure projects affecting their everyday lives.

Today, we are proposing the first comprehensive update to the National Environmental Policy Act regulations since they were issued over 40 years ago.

Over the past three years, the White House Council on Environmental Quality has been working closely with federal agencies and their leadership, including the leaders here today, to improve the implementation of NEPA for the American people.

NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of proposed major federal actions, including the issuance of federal permits and other approvals, as well as when providing federal funding.

NEPA affects communities and the quality of life of Americans across the nation — from the construction of roads, bridges, airports, and harbors; to water infrastructure; agriculture, forest, land, and fisheries management activities; and environmental restoration.

The goal of NEPA is to ensure well-informed decision-making.  But the process can be unnecessarily complex, burdensome, and protracted.  A lengthy process can delay or even derail important projects to modernize our nation’s infrastructure, manage our federal lands and waters, and restore our environment.

The Council on Environmental Quality has found that the average time for federal agencies to complete Environmental Impact Statements is four and half years.  Further, for highway projects, it takes over seven years on average, and many projects have taken a decade or more to complete the environmental review process.

These delays deprive hardworking Americans of the benefits of modernized roads and bridges that allow them to more safely and quickly get to work and get home to their families.

NEPA is the most litigated area of environmental law.  Delays due to lengthy reviews and lawsuits increase costs for project applicants, states, tribes, localities, and taxpayers.  These delays deter investments, and these delays make our country less economically competitive.

Today’s proposal would modernize the environmental review process.  The proposed rule would make commonsense changes to establish a presumptive two-year time limit for Environmental Impact Statements; require federal agencies to request information from applicants and the public earlier in the process; increase coordination by agencies to reduce delays; avoid duplication by facilitating use of documents required by other statutes or prepared by state, tribal, or local agencies; and ensure that the regulations reflect current, modern technologies.

The proposed rule would provide for a faster process while ensuring that agencies analyze and consider the environmental impacts of proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to address significant impacts.

It’s important to note that the proposal would reform the process of gathering information on environmental effects, but would not change any substantive environmental law or regulation, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Nothing in the proposal would eliminate the protections that Congress has enacted to safeguard our environment and the American people.

Today’s proposal has undergone extensive interagency review and the Council on Environmental Quality has carefully considered thousands of public comments.

Under the President’s leadership, the administration is committed to ensuring that we are good stewards of our environment while supporting American prosperity.

As we move forward with this proposed rule, we will remain focused on improving the environmental review and permitting process while ensuring a safe, healthy, and productive environment for current and future generations of Americans.

Mr. President, thank you for your leadership and support.

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much.  I appreciate it.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thanks, Mary.  Thanks a lot.

And if I could, Secretary Chao?  Secretary Chao.  Thank you.  Please.

SECRETARY CHAO:  Thank you, sir.  Good morning.  We are delighted to be here because today is indeed very historic.  Today’s action is really needed.  Our nation’s infrastructure is in danger of deterioration and it needs to be repaired and rebuilt.  And as you have heard from the President and also from the Director of CEQ, the time that it is required to rebuild a new project is now unsustainable.  Our nation needs, our infrastructure needs to be addressed.

We all care about the environment.  What we are talking about are cumbersome, unnecessary, overly burdensome, duplicative, and outdated regulations.  Many of these regulations have not been updated, modernized, in decades.  What we’re seeking is commonsense solutions.

As I repeat again: We all care about the environment.  What we need to give, as regulators, is certainty to the regulated community, so that if a project were not to go forward, they deserve a quick no.  Right now, we string along so many people who are waiting decades for answers from the federal government.  And again, that is not responsible governing.

So today is historic.  This NPRM will solicit comments, remarks, so it will be an open process.  And what we are hoping to do is to address the infrastructure needs of our country as the President has said on so many occasions.  And then of course, we want to see new projects be constructed and new jobs being created.

Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you, Elaine.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you, Elaine.  I want to also thank Elaine for doing a great job.  She’s doing a fantastic job.

Secretary Bernhardt, please?

SECRETARY BERNHARDT:  Mr. President, thank you for the introduction and for the honor of being here today.  I am thrilled.

For those of you that don’t practice in this area, let me tell you: This is a really, really big proposal.  This proposal affects virtually every significant decision made by the federal government that affects the environment.  And I believe it will be the most significant deregulatory proposal you ultimately implement.

THE PRESIDENT:  Wow.  Big statement.  (Laughter.)

SECRETARY BERNHARDT:  Well, the reality — you know, here’s the bottom line: You have been crystal clear since the day you arrived here that you wanted to have a commonsense approach to ensuring that the government made better decisions for the people.  And what you see here today are the people.  And the reality is that the NEPA law serves an incredibly noble purpose.

At the heart of the law, it establishes and ensures that we, as government decision makers, think about the consequences of our action before we make them, that we consider alternatives to our action, and that we receive the participation of the public before we make the action.  And everything in this rule does precisely that, sir.

But, when I arrived at the Department of the Interior, it took, on average, the Bureau of Land Management five years to complete and environmental review document.  We now are doing those in an average of 1.2 years.

And the consequences are far reaching.  For example, the quicker we can do our environmental reviews for Indian schools means the sooner students can have safer schools to go to school in.  The quicker we can improve and enhance our visitor’s centers and National Parks means the sooner people can enjoy those parks.

We even have the same process here for NEPA, as utilized when we’re thinking about good things to do for wildlife.  And the longer it takes to implement those conservation actions, the more delayed those are.

Our firefighters depend on the speed of environmental review to do our treatments in the forest.  Our ranchers, which are here, depend on the speed of our environmental review to know whether or not they’re going to have grazing opportunities next year.  Our farmers need to know that they can depend on our decisions, so that they can know that our water operations are likely to be consistent and secure.  And what you’re doing here is a very big thing.

We have — in the last 40 years, we’ve gone backwards.  And your actions are changing that, and it’s a big step forward.  So thank you.  And thank you, Mary.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Please, Andrew Wheeler — where is Andrew?  Come on, Andrew.

ADMINISTRATOR WHEELER:  Thank you, Mr. President.  I’m pleased to be here today to celebrate yet another promise this President has fulfilled: to update the NEPA regulations.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of both the EPA and the NEPA law.  A lot has changed over the last 50 years, and we have made tremendous progress in protecting both the environment and growing our economy.  From 1970 to 2018, the emissions of the six criteria air pollutants have decreased by 74 percent, and all six have gone down during the Trump administration.  Likewise, on the water side: In 1970, over 40 percent of our nation’s drinking water systems failed to meet the EPA standards.

Today, over 92 percent of all water systems meet the EPA standards every single day.  And at the same time, our economy has grown by 275 percent, with record-breaking growth over the last three years.

All of our major environmental statutes have been updated over the last 50 years, and the regulations under those statutes multiple times.  The NEPA regulations should have been updated and modernized decades ago.  It is long overdue.  We have had incredible advancements in environmental protection, and the NEPA process has not kept up to date.

It is important to remember that NEPA is mostly about process.  Today’s changes will have no impact on the important safeguards of our nation’s environmental statutes, such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, or the Superfund process.

The NEPA process today is too bureaucratic and burdensome, and has delayed important environmental projects.  The permitting process for a new drinking water plant, flood control project, or waster facility can take years, if not decades.  The NEPA process today is more about preparing documents for litigation and protecting the environment.  NEPA established a simple but important principle: that the federal government consider the impact of its actions on the environment before committing resources.

The NEPA process has lost sight of that goal.  Over the years, step after step has been added to the NEPA process, creating a Frankenstein of a regulatory regime.  Today’s proposal would empower lead agencies to make executive decisions when more than one agency is involved in the process, and will streamline the permitting process without compromising environmental protections.

This streamlined approach to NEPA will free up countless career employees to focus more of their time protecting the environment instead of protecting the jobs of attorneys who sue to stop each and every project.  NEPA was not meant to be a welfare program for trial attorneys.

I want to congratulate the President for his leadership and the Council on Environmental Quality and our sister agencies who put so much time into this proposal.  This proposal is yet another bold step this administration is taking to modernize the federal bureaucracy and our permitting programs for the benefit of all Americans.  Thank you, Mr. President.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Great job.  Thank you.

Sean?  Please.  Sean McGarvey.

MR. MCGARVEY:  Thank you, Mr. President.  Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades.  We are fully supportive of the President’s initiative when it comes to NEPA and permitting reform.  Few people in this country understand the archaic nature of our system the way the President does, based on his background where we partnered with him for years to try to build buildings and infrastructure in the United States.

This proposal does nothing to take away from the protections for our citizens, for our taxpayers, for our workers, or for our environment.

So on behalf of our membership, we’re fully supportive and look forward to the opportunities for thousands — hundreds of thousands of millions of people to go to work in the construction industry once these reforms are fully in place.  Thank you, Mr. President.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much.  Would you like to say something?

MS. HOUSTON:  Thank you, Mr. President.  America’s cattlemen and women are subject to NEPA review on a regular basis, whether renewing their grazing permits, applying for USDA program, or improving their rangeland.  And although well-intentioned, it’s become mired in a complex web of litigation and complexity and delay.

So these reforms are very exciting.  They will streamline the process, reduce duplication, allow more local control, and let our cattlemen and our beef producers going back to doing what they do best, and that’s raise high-quality beef to feed the world.

On behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council, thank you, Mr. President, Secretary Bernhardt, Secretary Chao, Chairman Neumayr.  We appreciate all your work and all your, really, remembering the cattlemen, cattlewomen in rural America and everything you do.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you very much.  Thank you very much.

And for the cattlemen and cattlewomen, we’re signing, as you know, a very big deal, among many other things, with China —

MS. HOUSTON:  Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT:  — probably January 15th.  And we just signed a $40 billion deal with Japan.  That’s already kicked in.  You see that.

MS. HOUSTON:  Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT:  We did South Korea.  We have others that we’ve done and some that we’re doing.  We have tremendous trade deals being made.

MS. HOUSTON:  I appreciate it. And they’re actually good deals for our country instead of bad deals for our country.

MS. HOUSTON:  Wonderful.

Q    Since the environment is something that is on the table here today, what is your position on global warming?  Do you think it’s a hoax?  Do you think that something needs to be done?

THE PRESIDENT:  No, no, not at all.  Nothing is a hoax.  Nothing is a hoax about that.  It’s a very serious subject.  I want clean air.  I want clear water.  I want the cleanest air with the cleanest water.

The environment is very important to me.  Somebody wrote a book that I’m an environmentalist — it actually called “The Environmentalist” — actually, before I did this.  But they wrote a book; I’d like to get it.  I have it in the other office.  I’ll bring it to my next news conference, perhaps.  I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to see it.  I’m sure you’ll report all about it.

But, no, I’m a big believer in that word: the environment.   I’m a big believer.  But I want clean air.  I want clean water.  And I also want jobs, though.  I don’t want to close up our industry because somebody said, you know, “You have to go with wind,” or “You have to go with something else” that’s not going to be able to have the capacity to do what we have to do.

We have the best employment numbers we’ve ever had.  We have the best unemployment numbers we’ve ever had.  So that’s very important.