President Trump signed an executive order this week to speed up environmental reviews of infrastructure projects. His announcement of it, in the lobby of Trump Tower, was eclipsed by what he said next, about blame for the violence at the White nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va. But, back to that order: Can it really change things?
Developers — and, especially in Alaska, the oil industry — often argue environmental regulation is too burdensome, that it can take years to get permits. Trump said his order takes care of that. It’s called “Establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure.”
The president held up a flow chart for a hypothetical highway permit application to illustrate what he says will be the results.
“This is what we will bring it down to. This is less than two years,” Trump told reporters. “This is going to happen quickly. That’s what I’m signing today.”
Georgetown Law Professor William Buzbee said President Trump is not the first to think of this. Previous presidents and Congress have taken cracks at “streamlining” environmental review. President George W. Bush signed an order to expedite the process. President Obama signed an order and also a 2015 law that sets deadlines for permitting decisions. This wasn’t even the first streamlining order for President Trump. He signed one like it in the Oval Office in January.
“This is the ‘Expediting of Environmental Reviews and Approvals For High Priority Infrastructure Projects.’ We intend to fix our country,” Trump said, wielding his pen a few days after his swearing-in. “Our bridges, our roadways – we can’t be in an environmental process for 15 years if a bridge is going to be falling down or if a highway is crumbling.”
That order was shorter and not as specific as the one he announced at Trump Tower.
Prof. Buzbee said a president certainly can speed things along, by setting priorities and telling agencies what their focus should be.
“So that, a president can do. You know, kind of instructing people on how they should think about their time,” Buzbee said. “On the other hand, there is a lot of law that influences this.”
Laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and an array of environmental regulations. Sometimes they obligate agencies to do things a certain way. Buzbee says an executive order can’t nullify law or regulations, and changing them takes time.
For permit applicants, time is money. The Alaska Gasline Development Corp. issued a press release celebrating President Trump’s order. AGDC is the state corporation that’s applied to build an 800-mile LNG pipeline from the North Slope.
“Across the board, I think this has a lot of really good impacts for infrastructure projects nationwide,” Rosetta Alcantra, the company’s vice president for communications, said.
The corporation submitted some 60,000 pages to support its permit application. The environmental review has begun. Skeptics say a final decision could be years away, but Alcantra said AGDC hopes to get its permit in 2018.
“Although we don’t know what the immediate impacts of this executive order is going to be on our particular project, and the permitting process is uncertain, we believe the guidance provided by the White House to federal agencies to expedite major projects is going to be positive over all,” Alcantra said.
Alcantra spoke before AGDC got word Friday that the government has agreed to fast-track its application. The new executive order did not bring this on. The gas pipeline application has been approved for the processing according to the terms of the streamlining law Congress passed and Obama signed in 2015.
The environmental review, though isn’t really holding up the project. The gas line needs financing. Gov. Bill Walker asked President Trump to consider loan guarantees for it as he advances his trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative.
But Trumps infrastructure initiative may have suffered a setback this week. The White House cancelled plans for an infrastructure advisory council and dissolved two other business-related panels after a stream of CEOs resigned from them.
They were protesting Trump’s incendiary statements on the violence in Charlottesville.