Northwest conservation and anti-pollution organizations say the Trump administration’s changes to a bedrock environmental law from the Nixon-era will have major impacts in the region.
The changes to the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, include eliminating environmental impact reports for some projects and streamlining the approval process for pipelines and other projects.
For its first 50 years, the law has required federal agencies to evaluate the environmental effects in the communities where proposed development or resource extraction is to occur. That has meant allowing citizens and advocates to speak out on draft versions of the government’s environmental impact statements, as well as on any negative impacts from the projects and activities — like mining, logging, or drilling for fossil fuels.
Trump’s new regulations will reduce the types of projects that will be required to submit to such evaluations, shorten the amount of time these evaluations are under review and reduce opportunities for public input.
Retiring U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, praised Trump’s actions.
“Rural Oregonians know too well the burdens of our dated, slow and tedious NEPA regulations,” Walden said in a press release. “They’ve watched for years as special interest groups have hijacked the process to drag out needed forest and range management projects that would improve the health of our public lands and reduce the threat of wildfire on our communities.”
Rex Storm, an official with Associated Oregon Loggers, was also pleased, saying Trump is reducing government waste in the form of time spent on analysis and document-producing.
“Managers can make those decisions more quickly and more efficiently using modern technology and science and there will be less waste in government,” Storm said.
But opponents say the changes weaken public engagement and put communities in harm’s way by no longer completing environmental impact statements.
Columbia Riverkeeper’s Legal and Program Director Lauren Goldberg said Oregonians should be very concerned. Despite the way pro-logging and pro-fossil fuel advocates are framing the change, she said NEPA is not a tool for environmentalists to stop activities or projects they oppose.
“NEPA is a public disclosure law. It’s a government-transparency law. It’s not a ‘lay down the hammer,’ ‘stop a project,’ or ‘stop a terminal’ law, it doesn’t do that,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg said the rule change could come into play with potential gas pipeline projects like the Trail West Pipeline, which NW Natural has proposed, but not actively pursued since 2011. Groups like hers have been concerned the project, if pursued, would negatively impact critics' ability to raise concerns during the NEPA review process. Goldberg said such objections could be raised when it comes to protecting the streams and wetlands the pipeline would cross on the Mt. Hood National Forest. A NW Natural spokesperson said regardless of any changes to NEPA, further progress on the pipeline would require sufficient interest from shippers, as well as a new licensing application with the government.
Brett Hartl with the Center for Biological Diversity said the greatest harm from NEPA’s weakening will involve smaller, more routine activities and projects and activities, like road construction. Now, they will be more likely to sail through the regulatory process in a way that diminishes the opportunities for regulators to consider the cumulative impacts of incrementally compromised air and water quality.
“There are front-line communities, even in Portland, that will suffer from more bad decisions,” Hartl said.
Similarly, he said, more common activities like logging and forest-road building will go unchecked, despite their potential for creating cumulative, negative impacts on wildlife habitat.
“I think about impacts to salmonids from warmer temperatures, more sedimentation, more pollution,” Hartl said. “Or impacts to all of the old-growth-dependent species that are harmed precisely by the cumulative impact from logging on the landscape bit by tiny bit.”
Weakening citizens’ ability to speak out or challenge timber sales — logging projects on public forest lands — could be the signature impact of Trump’s latest environmental rollback in the Northwest, warned Ralph Bloemers, an environmental lawyer at Crag Law Center in Portland.
"Over 80% of Oregonians rely on our forests for clean drinking water. The Trump administration’s decision to override our nation’s bedrock environmental laws will lead to more logging of older, larger trees and will take the best options to protect our forest waters and reduce fire risk off the table,” he said. “When these logging projects target older forests or occur near our favorite trails or campgrounds, these changes strike at the heart of our nation’s conservation laws and will make it much harder for Oregonians to protect the places they love.”
Western Environmental Law Center Wildlands Program Director and Staff Attorney Susan Jane Brown said low-income and disadvantaged communities stand to be hit particularly hard. She offered an example of the kind of testimony that regulators commonly would hear or read during the review process under NEPA before Trump's rollback.
“‘This project is right next to my home and would pollute the air that I breathe because it’s a new highway project.’ Those sorts of comments may not come in because of the barriers to public engagement,” she said.
Brown said she expects the rule will be challenged in federal court and cause a lot of chaos and gridlocks.
“Far from providing this sort of certainty and efficiency that the administration was hoping for, I think this is going to really backfire and blow up in their face,” Brown said, “… They’ve very rarely landed a rule successfully in the past three and a half years and I don’t see them landing this rule successfully either.”