President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order designed to hasten the approval of infrastructure projects in a move that critics say will undermine critical environmental protections.
The order is a response to COVID-19-related delays, according to the White House, and part of an effort to accelerate the country's economic recovery. "Unnecessary regulatory delays will deny our citizens opportunities for jobs and economic security, keeping millions of Americans out of work and hindering our economic recovery from the national emergency," the order reads.
But the order's legality is shaky and there is little evidence removing red tape will stimulate economic growth, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attorney told Utility Dive.
Trump's Thursday order is consistent with the Administration's policies on environmental regulations. In May, the President signed another executive order directing federal agencies to ease regulations on industry, following a March directive from the EPA providing compliance flexibility to power plants able to show that any pollution violations were a direct result of COVID-19 impacts.
Thursday's order focuses on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act. It calls on agency leaders to identify areas of the law that may be too burdensome for industries to comply with during the COVID-19 crisis and lay out "alternative arrangements" to compliance.
"From the beginning of my Administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays," Trump's order read. "Antiquated regulations and bureaucratic practices have hindered American infrastructure investments, kept America's building trades workers from working, and prevented our citizens from developing and enjoying the benefits of world-class infrastructure."
The order was likely aimed at the fossil fuel industry, particularly permit-heavy projects such as natural gas pipelines, according to former EPA attorney Joel Mintz, now a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University College of Law. But it could also impact the wind and solar industries, he said. The offshore wind industry voiced its support for the regulatory rollbacks, saying the order would streamline permitting and stimulate the sector.
"We want [to] get American steel and American concrete into the water as quickly as possible, and President Trump's executive order is one of the fastest routes to unlocking the hundreds of billions of dollars the U.S. offshore wind industry can generate for American workers and companies," American Offshore Wind Coalition Executive Director Matthew Willis said in a statement.
Utility group Edison Electric Institute had no comment on the order.
But the move will likely be challenged by environmentalists and others based on questionable legal grounds, said Mintz.
"The job of the Congress is to enact laws, and the duty of the President is to faithfully execute the laws," he said. "The President can do quite a few things with executive orders. But one thing the President is not permitted to do is to countermand directives from Congress to executive agencies. And that's what he seems to be doing."
NEPA seems to be the main law the Administration is concerned with because of its wide-ranging impacts, he said, but it's also unlikely speeding up permitting will provide the economic benefits the President says they will.
"Economic problems don't really stem from so-called red tape and bureaucracy. That's really not true. And so I think there will be a pretty substantial basis for stopping this effort," he said.
Environmentalists decried the order as a threat to environmental protections and said they are likely to challenge the move in court.
"These reviews are required by law to protect people from industries that can harm our health and our communities. Getting rid of them will hit those who live closest to polluting facilities and highways the hardest — in many of the same communities already suffering the most from the national emergencies at hand," Natural Resources Defense Council President and CEO Gina McCarthy said in a statement.
"Americans are crying out for leadership to confront racist violence and stop the spread of a deadly pandemic. This administration is not only ignoring those cries — but piling on the burden. We will not let this stand."