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Reinstating Regulations Can Hurt the Environment

Reinstating Regulations Can Hurt the Environment

By Drew Bond

A presidential transition from one party to the other always makes me think of the adage of the new broom. The incoming team wants to make a clean sweep, changing out all the personnel and overturning as many policies as possible. Recently, I even heard a leader of the energy and environment transition team tout that they are going to “roll back the rollbacks” on day one of the new administration, referring to much of the regulatory reforms that the Trump Administration has implemented.

But if the Biden administration is really interested in clean—meaning a cleaner environment—it should wield that new broom carefully. The Trump administration has left behind some important environmental policies that Biden should maintain.

To name one: during his term, Trump’s Council on Environmental Quality proposed and implemented important updates to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA was first implemented generations ago, in 1970. It was written for a world where almost half the energy used came from oil. To most people then, “pollution” meant litter, not invisible carbon dioxide.

So, while NEPA was intended to protect the environment, over the years it become far too burdensome and bureaucratic, and actually counterproductive for the environment. Its cumbersome process allowed lawsuits that slow down progress and drive up costs for clean energy and infrastructure projects that would benefit the environment. In one case, a Colorado vegetation management project that would improve fire resiliency and animal habitats on more than 1,000 acres was stalled more than three years due to NEPA litigation.

A 2017 analysis from the American Action Forum found that 148 energy and transit projects were under NEPA review, costing a total of $229 billion. Energy projects with a wait time greater than two years had an estimated cost of $67.1 billion. Clearly, in the 21st century world of renewable energy, the law was ripe for reform.

Just a few of the regulatory reforms implemented under Trump that should remain:

  • A reduction of the timeline of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from more than four years to no more than one year.
  • Changing the ruling that required an agency to provide all alternatives to a project during its EIS. This has reduced paperwork and red tape, zeroing in on real risks and eliminating frivolous legal action.
  • Implementing categorical exclusions: quicker approval for projects that do not have a significant impact on the environment and do not usually require a comprehensive EIS. 

The Biden Administration and congressional Democrats plan to increase infrastructure and clean energy spending to tackle climate change. If they are serious about accomplishing their goals, they should retain these necessary NEPA reforms.

Another sensible reform implemented under Trump involved changes to the 1972 Clean Water Act. Over the years, previous administrations had attempted to expand the definition of “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) to include non-navigable streams, such as areas that held water only after an occasional heavy rainfall. That left too many Americans, particularly farmers and ranchers, subject to heavy-handed bureaucratic oversight from Washington.

What’s more, the rules were unclear; because of dueling court decisions, an Obama administration rule was in place in 22 states, while the previous rule remained in place in the other 28 states. The EPA’s 2020 definition provides common sense clarity nationwide. “This new rule shows a respect for the rule of law, federalism, Congress, individual rights, and the environment that has been sorely lacking,” Heritage senior research fellow Daren Bakst said. The new administration should leave it in place.

With the hard-fought election now over, and resulting narrow majorities in Congress, it’s time to put politics and pride aside in favor of real progress towards a cleaner environment. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle should allow innovation to be unleashed. There are several environmental reforms put in place during the Trump administration that will improve the environment, reduce the cost of clean energy, and improve our infrastructure if we allow them to work. Let’s hope they aren’t swept away amid the presidential changeover.

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