On Friday, June 9, President Trump spoke at the US Department of Transportation on regulatory relief for infrastructure projects. His speech marked the end of a week in which his Administration focused on infrastructure investment and permitting reform. In this speech, President Trump discussed a variety of measures the Administration is implementing to speed up and simplify the federal infrastructure project permitting process. President Trump announced the creation of a new office within the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to “root out inefficiency, clarify lines of authority, and streamline federal and state and local procedures so that communities can modernize their aging infrastructure without fear of outdated federal rules getting in their way.”
CEQ oversees implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the major federal environmental review statue. The Administration has not provided more information on the structure or objectives of this new CEQ office, or a timeline for its creation, but it appears to actually be related to efforts to staff the infrastructure team within CEQ. In May, Alex Herrgott, former deputy staff director on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, was hired to serve as CEQ’s associate director for infrastructure. President Trump has yet to nominate someone to fill the position of CEQ chair, but the Administration has filled some other CEQ positions. Mary Neumayr, former GOP senior energy counsel on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, started in March as chief of staff at CEQ.
President Trump has also rolled back one initiative implemented by CEQ under the Obama Administration. In March, President Trump signed an Executive Order rescinding Obama-era CEQ final guidance on consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in NEPA reviews. It is possible that the Trump Administration will revise or withdraw other prior CEQ NEPA guidance, such as the "Forty Questions" CEQ document that is frequently referenced by agencies and in NEPA litigation.
In his speech last Friday, President Trump also announced the creation of a new “council to help project managers navigate the bureaucratic maze.” This new council will publish an online “dashboard,” which will allow the public to “easily track major projects through every stage of the approval process.” The Trump Administration has not explained how this new council will differ from the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC), if at all, and the permitting dashboard that already exist, which were created by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 (FAST Act), Pub. L. No. 114-94. The FPISC will hold its first meeting of this Administration on June 15, and further developments may emerge from that meeting.
In addition, in his speech, President Trump stated that environmental studies undertaken under NEPA could be reduced to “a few simple pages.” However, given the broad scope of impacts required to be assessed under the statute and NEPA caselaw, such a drastic reduction in the scope of EISs would likely require a statutory change to NEPA. The Trump Administration has not provided details on how it plans to accomplish this major overhaul of the current NEPA process.
In short, President Trump last week offered general ideas on reforming the permitting process for infrastructure projects but provided few specifics on implementation. Key infrastructure-related positions in his Administration have yet to be filled. It also remains to be seen whether the President will be able to usher any type of infrastructure reform and funding package through Congress.