WASHINGTON — Louisiana's crucial coastal restoration projects and infrastructure priorities such as roads and bridges could be fast tracked under a plan President Donald Trump outlined Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican, a supporter of the proposed change, referred to the current system as “paralysis by analysis.”
But critics of the proposal argue the changes would threaten the environment. Already, environmental groups have announced plans to challenge the changes in court.
Trump, at a news conference Thursday, promised that under the new system, environmental reviews, which are required for all projects that rely on federal funding or other resources, would be limited to two years and “maybe less.”
“Many of America’s most critical infrastructure projects have been tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process,” said Trump, who was surrounded by supporters that included construction workers in hard hats and cattle ranchers in cowboy hats, among the more typical suits and ties.
“These endless delays waste money, keep projects from breaking ground, and deny jobs to our nation’s incredible workers," Trump said. “We’re going to have very strong regulation, but it’s going to go very quickly.”
Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer with the Sierra Club of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, decried the move. “The environmental policy laws were put in place so we could make sure we don’t have disastrous consequences from projects,” he said.
Louisiana’s Republican congressmen praised the plan.
U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, called it a “strong move in the right direction.”
“Through a more efficient and less complex permitting process, we can more efficiently construct energy infrastructure, coastal restoration, and flood protection projects in Louisiana and across the country while still protecting our environment,” he said.
Graves said the changes would provide needed relief for projects in Louisiana, including coastal restoration.
Bethany Stich, director of the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute, said the the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act is probably due for an update but remains significant legislation.
“It’s a good document, but it is from 1969,” she said. “There’s a lot that probably should have been updated that hasn’t been.”
But Stich said the regulatory changes alone will not likely be a panacea.
“The reality is infrastructure is terribly underfunded as it is and climate change is only going to make things more difficult,” she said. “If you think about the interstate era and the road-building era — all of it is very aged.”
David Helveston, president and CEO of the Pelican Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, said the organization, which represents the construction industry, welcomes the modernization of regulations to reduce delays.
“There are real frustrations from the uncertainty about the process and the timeline,” Helveston said.
Those frustrations, he said, can drive investment away and create a backlog of projects.
Helveston pointed to Baton Rouge’s transportation infrastructure needs, like improvements to the interstate system to alleviate congestion and the construction of a new Mississippi River Bridge, as well as the proposed new Interstate 10 bridge in Lake Charles.
“Creating a coordinated, predictable, transparent process will be welcomed," he said.
Under NEPA, Graves argued, money that could be used for construction is wasted on bureaucracy.
“You’re spending an increased percentage of time and money on these non-construction activities,” he said. “The reality is that we really need to have more dollars actually doing construction activities — turning dirt.”
Trump's announcement swiftly drew opposition from Democrats and environmental groups.
“The Trump administration is once again ignoring science and putting the needs of their special-interest friends and donors ahead of the well-being of American families,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. “These new guidelines undermine critical building requirements that ensure that our communities are able to withstand the growing threat posed by the climate crisis, with significant, dangerous implications for the safety of our families and the financial security of American taxpayers.”
For Louisiana, the changes could mean lax regulations on pipelines that threaten the coast and expansion of petrochemical companies with fewer regulations, said Malek-Wiley, the Sierra Club organizer.
“This flies in the face of the current reality that we see with the impact of climate change on our coast,” he said. “The reality is we’re already seeing impacts in Louisiana.”
Trump sidestepped a question about climate change during his news conference. Instead, he pointed to clean air and water standards, which are environmental issues but not climate issues.
“I'm a big believer in that word: the environment. I'm a big believer,” he said. “I want clean air, I want clean water, and I also want jobs, though.”
Graves said he thinks environmental concerns are exaggerated as the regulations being scaled back apply only to projects that use federal resources.
“I know you will have people who will say that it will result in trashing the environment,” he said. “With a majority of projects being built without a NEPA analysis, there are already practices, procedures and guidelines in place that prevent environmental harm.”
Among the changes outlined, Trump said, his plan includes a new policy called “One Federal Decision” that will allow one environmental review per project, rather than multiple reviews for different affected agencies.
The federal government also will be able to rely on documents put together on the state and local level to eliminate duplication, he said.
“This is just the beginning,” he said. “We’ll not stop until our nation’s gleaming new infrastructure has made America the envy of the world again.”