Building that bridge or expanding that highway just became more difficult under a rigorous standard issued Tuesday by the Obama administration that will make it easier to block a wide range of projects in the name of climate change.
The final guidance broadens the National Environmental Policy Act by requiring agencies to quantify the impact of activities that require federal permits not just on the environment but also on “projected direct and indirect GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions.”
The White House described the guidance as “another big step in the administration’s effort to consider how all types of federal actions will impact climate change and identify opportunities to build climate resilience.”
The announcement comes after a six-year review process challenged by House and Senate Republicans over a host of concerns, including worries that the update could be used to impose caps on carbon emissions without congressional approval.
Republicans blasted the guidance as the latest in a flurry of President Obama’s end-of-term executive actions, led by the Clean Power Plan, arguing the guideline will further restrict economic development by weaving rules on climate change into federal regulations.
“This will result in significant new litigation exposure that will slow or block most every major activity requiring NEPA approval,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, Utah Republican. “When any emissions equals bad and bad equals denied, you can kiss energy independence goodbye.”
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Myron Ebell, director of the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, said NEPA is “already a nightmare” that has resulted in projects on both public and private lands being “delayed to death.”
“Requiring that the direct, indirect and cumulative climate impacts be included in an EIS means that the recommended option for most projects will be no action — that is, not to build it,” Mr. Ebell said. “The NEPA climate guidance document at a minimum adds another obstacle to building any major new project in this country from bridges to mines to housing and shopping developments.”
The guidance appears to undercut Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposal for a five-year, $275 billion infrastructure improvement plan, a cornerstone of her economic development package.
Even so, the announcement was cheered by environmentalists such as Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who called the guidance a “game changer” on cutting off projects in the name of climate protection.
“Now federal agencies must fully and properly analyze the climate impacts of their proposed actions before deciding on how to proceed,” said Ms. Suh in a statement. “They shouldn’t approve mines that will destroy the climate, or bridges that will get washed away.”
James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, argued that the White House Council on Environmental Quality lacks the authority to issue the guidance, given that the panel has not had a Senate-confirmed chairman since February 2014.
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“Under the Vacancies Reform Act, no person may perform the duties of the vacant CEQ Chairman position until the President has nominated a candidate who is subject to Senate confirmation,” Mr. Inhofe said in a Tuesday statement.
“With no Senate-confirmed chairman, or even a nominee, today’s guidance can have no force or effect as CEQ staff have no authority to take any official action,” he said. “Further, even if there were a Senate-confirmed Chairman of CEQ, global climate change falls outside of the scope of NEPA so the guidance has no legal basis.”
The 34-page guidance was issued by Christina Goldfuss, CEQ managing director, who argued that the climate change “is a fundamental environmental issue, and its effects fall squarely within NEPA’s purview.”
Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he was concerned that the guidance “has handed special interests another tool to stop infrastructure development and land management activities in their tracks.”
“This will obstruct our ability to build badly needed infrastructure of all kinds and render the investments that are being talked about on the campaign trail meaningless,” said Mr. Josten in a statement. “From railroads, bridges, and highways, to energy, forests, and land management — permits will be more difficult to obtain.”