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Trump weakens major conservation law to speed construction permits

WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump today unilaterally weakened one of the nation’s bedrock conservation laws, the National Environmental Policy Act, limiting public review of federal infrastructure projects to speed up the permitting of freeways, power plants and pipelines.

In doing so, the Trump administration claimed it will save hundreds of millions of dollars over almost a decade by significantly reducing the amount of time allowed to complete reviews of major infrastructure projects.

The president announced the final changes to the rule at the UPS Hapeville Airport Hub in Atlanta, making the case that “mountains and mountains of red tape” and lengthy permit processes have held up major infrastructure projects across the country, including a lane expansion to Interstate 75 in Georgia.

“All of that ends today,” he said. “We’re doing something very dramatic.”

Revising the 50-year-old law through regulatory reinterpretation is one of the biggest deregulatory actions of the Trump administration, which to date has moved to rollback 100 rules.

Because the action is coming so late in Trump’s term, it elevates the stakes in the November elections. Under federal regulatory law, a Democratic president and Congress could eradicate the NEPA rollback with simple majority votes on Capitol Hill and the president’s signature.

Republican lawmakers, the oil and gas industry, construction companies, homebuilders and other businesses have long said the federal permitting process takes too long, and accused environmentalists of using the law to tie up projects they oppose.

The final rule sets new hard deadlines of between one and two years to complete environmental studies, according to two people who have seen the document but were not authorized to speak about it publicly. And in one of the most bitterly contested provisions, the rule would free federal agencies from having to consider the impacts of infrastructure projects on climate change.

“This may be the single biggest giveaway to polluters in the past 40 years,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.

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