By JOAN LOWY and MICHAEL BIESECKER
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Tuesday he has signed a new executive order intended to make the federal permitting process more efficient for the construction of transportation, water and other infrastructure projects without harming the environment.
Trump’s order revokes an earlier executive order signed by President Barack Obama concerning projects built in flood plains, White House officials said. The Obama order required that projects of that sort that are built with federal aid take rising sea levels into account. Trump has suggested the predicted risks from rising sea levels driven by climate change are overblown.
Describing his action, Trump said projects will still be subjected to environmental safeguards.
“It’s going to be quick, it’s going to be a very streamlined process,” Trump said. “And by the way, if it doesn’t meet environmental safeguards, we’re not going to approve it. Very simple. We’re not going to approve it.”
Building-trade groups had urged Trump to revoke the flood-plain order, saying it was overly bureaucratic and increased the cost of projects. The Obama order was especially unwieldy because it didn’t standardize across the government how rising sea levels were to be taken into account, which left each federal agency to come up with its own standards, said Jimmy Christianson, an attorney with the Associated General Contractors.
A recent draft of an upcoming report from scientists representing 13 federal agencies say sea levels along U.S. coastlines could rise by more than one foot on average by 2050, possibly more in the Northeast and western Gulf of Mexico. A projected increase in the intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic will increase the probability of “extreme coastal flooding.”
Environmentalists said Tuesday that ignoring the reality of the Earth’s changing climate is shortsighted.
“What this order will do is ensure that we will waste more taxpayer money because federal agencies will no longer have to consider long-term flood risks to federally funded infrastructure projects,” said Jessica Grannis, who manages the adaptation program at the Georgetown Climate Center.
The president, speaking at a news conference at Trump Tower in New York, said it can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and 17 years to approve an ordinary highway project because of burdensome regulations. Under Trump’s order, agencies must complete environmental reviews of projects within two years on average. In his first week in office, Trump signed another executive order on streamlining environmental and public reviews of infrastructure projects.
“We used to have the greatest infrastructure anywhere in the world. And today we’re like a third-world country,” Trump said, using a term referring to the economically developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said that regulations, not a lack of money, are the main obstacle faced by transportation projects. But a Treasury Department report released earlier this year found that “a lack of public funding is by far the most common factor hindering completion” of major transportation and water projects.
Democrats have said the administration would be better off carrying out streamlining provisions that are already in law rather than attempting something new. Congress in 2012 and 2015 passed transportation laws containing dozens of streamlining provisions.
A report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general this spring found that although the department had completed work necessary to carry out a majority of the 42 streamlining provisions in the 2012 law, they had still not been carried out because regulators had to make changes to comply with the requirements of the 2015 law.
Shannon Eggleston, the American Association of State, Highway and Transportation Officials’ program director for environment, said there is still room to adjust the processes for complying with laws protecting endangered species and air quality in a way that won’t hurt the environment.