Overreach or Streamlined Permits? House Debates Climate Guidance

By Rachel Leven

Sept. 21 — Guidance that directs several federal agencies to consider climate change in a project’s environmental review is voluntary and intended to streamline the permitting process, a White House official said Sept. 21 at a House committee hearing.

House Republicans attempted to undercut the assertions of Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing about the National Environmental Policy Act guidance finalized in August. They argued the guidance is executive overreach, economically detrimental, environmentally purposeless and that climate change—the issue that the guidance centers on—isn’t real, all at odds with Democrats’ views.

“Perhaps the most concerning [issue] is the apparent lack of awareness of limits of executive authority and the appropriate role of Congress,” committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said in his opening statement. The White House Council of Environmental Quality, Bishop added, “does not get to alter NEPA simply because it does not like the results it produces.”

This isn’t the first hearing the House committee has had on this guidance. During the latest one, Bishop repeatedly called the document “voluntary guidance, which must be obeyed,” and Goldfuss repeatedly called it “a regulatory tool.” The guidance, which could affect a range of projects from energy to infrastructure was first released in as a draft in February 2010 and then again as a draft in 2014 to extend climate reviews to projects on public lands. The final guidance was signed by the White House council Aug. 1.

Economic, Environmental Impacts

Goldfuss and Democrats argued that the guidance would protect the environment by accounting for climate change. It also would result in more environmentally sustainable, climate resilient and economically sound projects, Goldfuss said.

For example, a bridge could be built in such a way that it would account for expected sea-level rise or extreme weather from climate change. This would limit the need for rebuilding it every 20 years to address those issues and make it resilient, Goldfuss said, noting the monetary savings. Additionally, the guidance will help provide certainty to agencies as to tools they can use to appropriately review environmental and climate-related impacts of projects, she said.

“Nothing delays things more than uncertainty,” Goldfuss said regarding agency decision-making. “With 90 cases in the courts, 25 different agencies trying to figure out how to address the issue of climate change, this guidance answers that question, says that we recommend that they account for greenhouse gas emissions and gives them tools to do so, which allows them to move beyond the debate and do the analysis.”

But Republicans disagreed. The guidance would increase economic costs for going through permitting and encourage more litigation against the government for projects environmentalists and others may oppose, Republicans said.

Federal Government, Environmental Issues

Additionally, the guidance misses the point when it comes to environmental protection, Republicans said. For example, the federal government itself contributes to greenhouse gas emissions through actions such as forest management and affects climate resiliency through actions such as causing wetlands loss, they said.

Indeed, Bishop said this guidance exhibits what he asserted will be a major part of President Barack Obama’s legacy, a legacy of executive overreach. Bishop said that it is Congress’s authority, not the White House’s, to alter environmental policy. And while the guidance is “voluntary,” Bishop said that can be a slippery slope if litigation should occur.

“Once someone has the responsibility to do something, it doesn’t mean they have the authority to do it,” Bishop said, adding that if it were legal to make this a requirement, the White House would have done so. “If a court uses your voluntary guidance as an issue of what somebody has to do, does that not become defacto enforcement of what takes place?”

“No, we do not see it that way,” Goldfuss said. Bishop responded, “OK, then you’re seeing it wrong.”

Bishop later added, “It’s not your responsibility. It’s not your authority. But you did it anyway, and that’s why I object to it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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