White House finalizes permitting reform rule included in debt ceiling deal

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The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) finalized rules Tuesday aimed at streamlining the environmental review process under the National Environmental Protection Act.

The final rule, which was part of an agreement in last summer’s deal to increase the federal debt ceiling, creates new methods for the federal government to establish a categorical exclusion. These are the speediest category of decisions in the permitting process because they refer to cases where the government has determined they do not affect the environment enough to require an environmental review. The additions in the final rule include allowing joint categorical exclusions between multiple agencies.

The final rule also includes provisions to improve community engagement in the environmental review process, undoing a 2020 Trump administration rule that critics have said imposed excessive hurdles for public comment during the process. It further eliminates provisions of the 2020 rule that the Biden administration CEQ said “attempted to curtail judicial review” of permitting decisions.

“President Biden has unleashed historic investments to build our clean energy future, make long-overdue infrastructure upgrades across the nation, and deliver benefits to communities that have been historically left behind,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory said in a statement. “These reforms will deliver smarter decisions, quicker permitting, and projects that are built better and faster. As we accelerate our clean energy future, we are also protecting communities from pollution and environmental harms that can result from poor planning and decision-making while making sure we build projects in the right places.”

Environmental groups praised the Biden administration for the final rule, saying it restored enforcement strength to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that had been previously rolled back.

“Meaningful community engagement is the key to unlocking our clean energy future. It leads to better projects that face less opposition on the back end,” Christy Goldfuss, executive director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “We do not have to sacrifice environmental justice, community safeguards, public health, or environmental protections to fight climate change and build the clean energy economy we need.”

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