In surprise vote, Senate overturns Biden’s environmental rule

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a surprise victory for Republicans, the Senate voted Thursday to overturn a Biden administration rule requiring rigorous environmental review of major infrastructure projects such as highways, pipelines and oil wells — a result helped by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Manchin, a key player on energy and climate issues and a swinging vote in the tightly divided Senate, joined Republicans in backing the measure, which was approved 50-47. The vote comes as Manchin has proposed a separate slate of legislation to speed up federal approval for major projects in exchange for his support for a Democratic bill to tackle climate change.

Republicans voted unanimously to overturn Biden’s leave rule, while Manchin was the only Democrat to do so. Three senators were absent: Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. The vote sends the measure to the Democratic-controlled House, where it is unlikely to move forward.

Still, the vote signaled strong Senate support for action to reform the often onerous federal permitting process, which can take up to eight to 10 years for highways and other major projects. Streamlining the federal review is a top priority for the Manchins and the GOP that is not shared by most Democrats.

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Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, sponsored the measure to overturn the Biden rule, saying new regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, will further bog down the permitting process and delay the critical infrastructure projects that the country needs.

The Biden rule — which reverses a Trump administration action relaxing environmental reviews — requires regulators to consider likely impacts on climate change and nearby communities before approving major projects. The new requirement “will add to 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 pushed for a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure law passed last year — the new NEPA rule “actually makes it harder to build projects.” infrastructure” in the United States, Sullivan said.

“The only people, in my opinion, who really like this new system are the far-left radical environmentalist groups who don’t want to build anything … and probably the Chinese Communist Party,” he told the Senate. China and other competitors “probably like the fact that it takes 9 to 10 years to clear a bridge in the United States,” Sullivan said.

The White House has threatened a veto if the measure reaches the president’s desk.

“This action would slow the construction of U.S. infrastructure, waste taxpayer resources on poorly designed projects, and result in unnecessary and costly litigation and conflict that would delay clearance,” the White House said in a statement Thursday.

Manchin countered that “for years I’ve worked to fix our broken permit system, and I know the administration’s (Biden’s) approach to permits is completely wrong.”

Manchin called Thursday’s vote “a step in the right direction,” but said the measure was likely “dead when it got to the House.” That’s why I’ve fought so hard to get a commitment (from Democratic leaders) on bipartisan permit reform, which is the only way to solve this problem.

The new rule, finalized this spring, restores key provisions of NEPA, a foundational environmental law designed to ensure community safeguards during reviews of a wide range of federal projects, including roads, bridges and energy development such as pipelines and oil wells. Longstanding exams were scaled back under former President Donald Trump in a bid to speed up projects and create jobs.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality said during the implementation of the new rule that it should restore public confidence in environmental reviews. The change could speed development by helping “ensure projects are built right the first time,” said CEQ President Brenda Mallory.

Projects approved by the Trump administration have often been delayed or rejected by lengthy court battles by groups challenging environmental assessments as inadequate.

Manchin, who brokered a surprise deal last week on climate legislation with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, said he secured promises from Biden and Democratic congressional leaders to press ahead with reforms allowing the Senate to expedite approval of projects in his energy-producing state and across the country. Manchin’s wish list includes quick approval of the controversial Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline in his home state and Virginia. The pipeline is nearly complete but has been delayed for years by court battles and other issues.

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Manchin’s list includes a number of Republican-backed proposals, including a two-year deadline for environmental reviews; amendments to the Clean Water Act; limitations on judicial review; and prompt action on projects determined by the Secretary of Energy to be in the national interest.

Environmental groups have decried Manchin’s proposals as counterproductive to climate legislation and a threat to the environment and the communities where the projects would be built.

Madeleine Foote, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, dismissed Thursday’s Senate vote as “nothing more than a Republican-led stunt to appease their fossil fuel industry allies.”

Foote and other environmentalists said a thorough NEPA review is needed to ensure those most affected by an energy project have a say in the projects built in their communities.

“Thorough, community-based environmental reviews are essential to help eliminate environmental racism and ensure low-income communities 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 approve the Manchin-Schumer climate bill as soon as possible. Schumer said votes on the bill would take place this weekend.

Kabir Green, director of federal affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, another environmental group, said Americans “see the effects of climate change in catastrophic detail, from heat waves in Texas to wildfires in New Mexico in going through the devastating floods in Kentucky. But the Senate is voting to prevent the federal government from taking climate change into account when making decisions. It does not mean anything.”


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