WASHINGTON (AP) — In a surprise victory for Republicans, the Senate voted Thursday to undo a rule by the Biden administration that requires a rigorous environmental assessment of major infrastructure projects such as highways, pipelines and oil wells — a victory that is partially powered by Democratic sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Manchin, a key player on energy and climate issues and a vote in the deeply divided Senate, joined Republicans in support of the measure, which passed 50-47. The vote comes as Manchin proposed a separate list of legislative measures to accelerate environmental permitting for major projects in exchange for: his support for a democratic bill to tackle climate change.
Republicans voted unanimously to overturn the Biden rule, with Manchin being the only Democrat to back it. Three Senators were absent: Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. The vote will send the measure to the Democrat-controlled House, where progress is unlikely to be made.
Still, the vote marked strong Senate support for action to reform the often arduous federal permit process, which can take up to eight to 10 years for highways and other major projects. Streamlining federal assessment is a top Manchin and GOP priority that is not shared by most Democrats.
sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, sponsored the measure to overturn the Biden rule and said new regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, will further slow the permitting process and delay critical infrastructure projects the country needs. .
The Biden rule — which reverses a Trump administration’s move to relax environmental assessments — requires regulators to consider likely impacts on climate change and nearby communities before approving major projects. The new requirement “will increase the bureaucracy” that prevents major infrastructure projects from being approved in a timely manner, Sullivan said.
While President Joe Biden has called infrastructure a priority — and has pushed for a $1 Trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill Passed Last Year — the new NEPA rule “actually makes it harder to build infrastructure projects” in the United States, Sullivan said.
“The only people, in my opinion, who really like this new system are radical far-left environmental groups that don’t want to build anything…and probably the Chinese Communist Party,” he said on the Senate floor. China and other competitors probably like the fact that it takes 9 to 10 years to allow a bridge in the US,” Sullivan said.
The new rule, completed this spring, restores key provisions of NEPA, a fundamental environmental law designed to safeguard the community during assessments for a wide variety of federal projects, including roads, bridges and energy development such as pipelines and oil wells. The lengthy assessments were scaled back under former President Donald Trump in an effort to speed up projects and create jobs.
The White House Council on Environmental Quality said in implementing the new rule it must restore public confidence during environmental assessments. The change could even accelerate projects by helping “ensure projects are built right the first time,” said CEQ president Brenda Mallory.
Projects approved by the Trump administration were often delayed or defeated by lengthy lawsuits from groups challenging environmental assessments as inadequate.
Manchin, who last week struck a surprise deal on climate legislation with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, said he has won pledges from Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress to push for reforms to allow approval of projects in his energy-producing state and accelerate across the country. Manchin’s wish list is swift federal approval of the controversial Mountain Valley pipeline, which would produce natural gas in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia and has been delayed for years by lawsuits and other issues.
Manchin’s list includes a number of proposals supported by Republicans, including a two-year term for environmental studies; changes to the Clean Water Act; restrictions on judicial review; and rapid action on projects identified by the Minister of Energy as being in the national interest.
Environmental groups have dismissed Manchin’s proposals as counterproductive to climate legislation and a threat to the environment and the communities where projects would be built.
Madeleine Foote, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters, dismissed Thursday’s Senate vote as “nothing more than a Republican-led stunt to appease their fossil fuel allies.”
Foote and other environmentalists said a strong NEPA assessment is needed to ensure those most affected by an energy project have a say in the projects being built in their communities.
“Thorough, community-based environmental assessments are critical to help eliminate environmental racism and ensure low-income and communities of color are protected from polluters who want to build dirty, toxic projects in their backyards,” Foote said.
She called on Congress to pass the Manchin-Schumer Climate Bill as soon as possible. Senate leaders have said a vote is likely this week.
Kabir Green, director of federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, another environmental group, said Americans are “seeing the effects of climate change in catastrophic detail, from the heatwaves in Texas to wildfires in New Mexico to the devastating floods in Kentucky. But the Senate votes to prevent the federal government from taking climate change into account when making decisions, which makes no sense.”