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Congress Vows to Fight Trump’s Environmental Rule Change

The White House could exclude climate change from new infrastructure projects in a revision of a 50-year-old environmental rule this week. Image: J. Daniel Escareño

The Transportation Research Board’s 99th Annual Meeting will be held in Washington, D.C. from Jan. 12-16, 2020. Click here for more information.

Congressional leaders vowed they won't let the president get away with gutting environmental laws after learning the Trump administration will scrap requirements to consider the climate consequences for new highways and pipelines.

A White House council is expected on Wednesday to announce revisions to the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act that would advise federal agencies to ignore the effects of climate change during reviews of new infrastructure projects.

House Democrats, who arrived back on Capitol Hill on Monday after a two-week holiday break, blasted the president's plan to circumvent environmental review and are discussing several options to deter the White House.

"Pretending like our climate isn’t changing is reckless and costly," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio told Streetsblog. "Not only is removing these requirements a bad idea for public health and our environment, but it will end up costing taxpayers more when projects aren’t built to be resilient."

Some members of Congress said they would fight the administration's changes by adjusting permitting requirements in the next iteration of the surface transportation bill, which expires in September, or add riders that appropriate money for the consideration of climate change.

California Rep. Mark Takano said Trump's plan would hinder efforts to protect communities from environmental disasters and vowed that Congress would use "several tools at its disposal to fight" it.

"This is a short-sighted plan that will affect the resiliency and sustainability of our infrastructure projects – our roads, our bridges, and our buildings should be prepared to withstand the challenges climate change will continue to create," Takano, who is also co-chairman of the Future of Transportation Caucus, told Streetsblog. "Our goal should be to mitigate the impact of climate change on our communities, but this Trump proposal will only exacerbate the crisis."

The change is the president's latest environmental rollback, which total nearly 100 in the last three years. Trump had previously weakened rules that reduced air pollution in national parks, revoked California's ability to set stricter fuel economy standards, and repealed a requirement that states monitor tailpipe emissions on federal highways, among other changes.

Under the White House Council on Environmental Quality revision, federal agencies would not have to study cumulative effects of climate change when evaluating projects. This proposal would enable infrastructure projects to proceed more quickly through the review process without having to disclose how much waste or emissions would be emitted and how susceptible projects are to rising sea levels.

But the consequences of ignoring the effects of a rapidly warming planet are deadly. Infrastructure projects like highways and bridges would not need to show how resilient they would be in the wake of a "hundred-year" flood or a tropical storm, even if they were built near wetlands.

"The issue comes up when roads are washed out by hurricanes and there are questions about how it should be rebuilt," Sabin Center for Climate Change Law director Michael Gerrard told Streetsblog. "If you’re building a highway or a runway or rail line you want to be sure it will still be above water at the end of its useful life. Disregarding climate impacts could lead to a colossal waste of money and a disruption of transportation service."

Environmental groups worry that weakening the regulations would allow developers and energy companies to harm communities without any scrutiny. Advocates had used the environmental rules to stymie projects in court by showing the Trump administration had not adequately considered the effects of climate change in its reviews. A lawsuit seems almost inevitable.

"If the administration does certain rule making that pushes beyond the boundaries beyond what the law permits, this will result in a legal maneuver or a court case quickly," Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program fellow Adie Tomer told Streetsblog.

States could also enact stricter environmental review laws if the Trump administration loosens its regulations since federal rules do not pre-empt state and local rules.

"State laws are stand alone laws and the bluest states already have strong environmental reviews laws for projects which they have jurisdiction," Gerrard said.

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