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White House aiming to narrow national environmental law, report says

The Trump administration is set to release an update to the National Environmental Policy Act on Jan. 9 that is expected to exempt certain energy and infrastructure projects from federal environmental reviews that have been required for decades, The Washington Post reported.

Energy policy observers in Washington, D.C., have been expecting changes to land this week. Most expected the Trump administration to try to cut through court precedent and make environmental reviews easier to navigate for developers of natural gas pipelines, energy facilities and other infrastructure. The Washington Post report was the first to suggest the narrowing of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

Enacted in 1970, NEPA is a bedrock law in helping to understand and protect against some of the environmental impacts of energy projects and infrastructure. It has also been used by environmental groups to slow or block energy infrastructure for decades. A major change to NEPA would likely be hotly contested in courts.

"The proposed regulations would redefine what constitutes a 'major federal action' to exclude privately financed projects that have minimal government funding or involvement," according to The Washington Post article.

U.S. pipeline trade group the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, or INGAA, and other energy trade groups have asked the White House to move on the final rule, which has been in the works for more than a year and received public comment.

At an industry event on Jan. 7, INGAA officials said that NEPA needs the update. INGAA President and CEO Don Santa said court interpretations have piled up around some aspects of the act in individual project reviews and this has led to uncertainty, as developers are not sure which precedent from different federal appeals courts best applies to theirs. Santa said it was time for clarity and efficiency in environmental reviews at agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which issues permits for gas pipelines, LNG export terminals and hydropower projects among its duties.

"Streamlining is not a bad thing," said Stan Chapman III, TC Energy Corp.'s president of U.S. pipelines and the new chairman of INGAA for 2020. Chapman said the pipeline industry supports a thorough review to protect the environment and avoid court fights over project permits, but developers need certainty for budgets and schedules.

The question of how far FERC should go under NEPA to measure indirect greenhouse gas emissions from gas transportation infrastructure has divided the commission's Republican commissioners from the lone Democratic commissioner, who thinks the commission does not properly use its authority and available tools to measure such impacts.

In public comments on the NEPA rule change proposal and in other forums, environmental groups have warned that it would reduce public involvement in permit decisions and favor the interests of developers and industry. A coalition of groups wrote in comments last year that the key to efficiency is having competent, trained and adequate staff at agencies to implement the regulations.