US President Donald Trump’s administration has announced a spate of policies to cut review times for large infrastructure projects and bypass the requirements of some of the country's environmental laws, The Associated Press reported.
The measures are touted as driven by the “economic emergency” triggered by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and aimed at fast-tracking construction project permits for highways, mines, pipelines, fossil fuel export terminals and others.
In compliance with the order, federal agencies would reportedly be called upon to seek “workarounds” from environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act, from which big infrastructure projects typically require lengthy approvals
The order, writes the outlet, would also expedite civil works projects overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, calling upon the departments of Interior, Agriculture and Defense to wield emergency authorities to hasten projects on federal lands.
“Unnecessary delays in timely agency actions will deny our citizens opportunities for jobs and economic security and will hinder our economic recovery from the national emergency, keeping millions of Americans out of work," The Associated Press cites a draft of the order as stating.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon in 1970, requiring agencies to look into the environmental impacts of proposed actions and consider alternatives, if deemed hazardous.
On previous occasions, US presidents have exercised emergency powers to work around the regulations, as was the case in 2014.
At the time, the Obama administration granted the National Park Service an emergency exception to construct an evacuation route at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park due to the threat of lava flows.
Nonetheless, the agency subsequently complied with the full NEPA process.
The current executive order has been hailed by developers and industries, reportedly frustrated by unwieldy federal processes.
"Today's executive order provides an opportunity to jumpstart our economic recovery by ensuring that we are rebuilding and modernizing with American-made materials, equipment and jobs," National Mining Association President & CEO Rich Nolan was quoted as saying.
‘Direct Threat to Environment’
Critics from among the Democratic Party and environmental groups were quick to slam Donald Trump’s authority to implement the executive order, denouncing it as a “direct threat to the environment”.
“Without these important safeguards, American taxpayers could spend billions of dollars on projects that destroy endangered ecosystems, are unable to withstand the effects of climate change and threaten the safety of American families,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Gina McCarthy, a former EPA administrator currently heading the Natural Resources Defense Council, slammed the order as an abuse of emergency powers.
Pointing out that eliminating environmental reviews was "utterly senseless”, McCarthy said:
"Instead of trying to ease the pain of a nation in crisis, President Trump is focused on easing the pain of polluters."
In January, President Trump announced he intended to streamline the "outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process" linked to the NEPA.
The move was applauded by supporters from among the ranks of fossil fuel, construction, ranching and other industries, while environmental groups expressed concerns for a potential sidelining of climate impacts of the projects.
At the time, Trump said that "America is a nation of builders," deploring excessive red tape that led to delays to numerous projects.