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January 23, 2020 11:45 AM, EST

Democrats Urge Extension of Public Comment Period on NEPA Update

CarperSen. Tom Carper via Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

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The Trump administration’s proposal to streamline the environmental permitting process for infrastructure projects deserves a comment period of at least half a year, more than 100 congressional Democrats insisted in a recent letter to the Council on Environmental Quality.

Led by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House, and Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking member on the Senate highway committee, the Democrats are calling on the agency to allow public input beyond a March deadline, and to schedule at least five public hearings nationwide. A limited opportunity for public input on a proposal to update National Environmental Policy Act rules would be detrimental, they argued.

“We urge you to extend the comment period to a duration commensurate with the scope and gravity of changes that CEQ proposes. Given that this is an unprecedented rewrite of the existing regulations and will impact proposed federal agency decisions for years to come, any public comment period less than six months would be unreasonable,” the lawmakers wrote to CEQ chairperson Mary Neumayr on Jan. 21.

Peter DeFazio

DeFazio

“The sweep of changes proposed in this rulemaking necessitates a long conversation about the proposed rule and the best way forward, if there is any, given the weaknesses in the rulemaking process and policy considered to date,” they added as they suggested the proposal could minimize the impact of climate change during the planning phase of an infrastructure project. Signatories included Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.

The proposal’s comment period deadline is March 10, and the agency scheduled two public hearings to be held in February. This month, officials issued a proposed rulemaking aimed at updating NEPA regulations meant to incorporate a one-federal-decision approach to permitting. For instance, it would welcome the development of a joint schedule by a lead agency and preparation of a single environmental impact statement.

Letter Requesting Comment Extension by Transport Topics on Scribd

According to a notice archived in the Federal Register, the Trump administration is aiming to “modernize and clarify the regulations to facilitate more efficient, effective, and timely NEPA reviews by federal agencies in connection with proposals for agency action.”

During the proposal’s announcement at the White House on Jan. 9, President Donald Trump explained, “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,” the president added.

Several senior congressional Republicans have called for such streamlining, and they expressed support for the proposal. Additionally, myriad infrastructure funding stakeholders came out in favor of it. They included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is leading the “Unlock American Investment” coalition to promote the proposal’s objective.

Donohue

“Too often, the current rules are used as a tool to obstruct important projects, such as highways, bridges, public transit and even renewable energy projects. Reducing delays and uncertainties associated with infrastructure investment and related projects will allow businesses to plan and invest with confidence while enhancing economic productivity and supporting more and better-paying jobs throughout the country,” said Tom Donohue, the chamber’s leader.

Coalition members include the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the National Association of Realtors and American Trucking Associations.

The coalition explained in an online statement, “We fully support the fundamental goal of NEPA to ensure appropriate consideration of the potential environmental impacts of federal actions. However, NEPA has not been updated in 40 years, creating delays and hurting economic growth. It’s time to modernize.”

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