By Beau Evans
President Donald Trump traveled to Atlanta Wednesday to unveil changes to longstanding environmental rules that industries hail as a boon for infrastructure and critics condemn as toxic.
Trump’s visit Wednesday was his second trip to Atlanta so far this year. He previously traveled to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early March at the onset of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.
The appearance came as the president faces an increasingly tough fight in Georgia to win the state’s 16 electoral votes against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the upcoming Nov. 3 general election.
The president’s 45-minute visit Wednesday focused on an overhaul of key regulatory rules in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a Nixon-era law signed in 1970 that requires construction projects like pipelines, roads and power plants to undergo certain environmental reviews.
Environmental advocates view the NEPA rules as critical to preventing damaging wildlife and human-health impacts from large projects. Industry groups frame the rules as overly cumbersome in a way that hamstrings economy-driving infrastructure.
Under the changes, federal agencies will have to complete environmental reviews for projects within two years, hastening a process that frequently takes far longer. Limits would also be set on how agencies may factor a project’s impacts on climate change into its review.
“Today’s action is part of my administration’s fierce commitment to slashing the web of needless bureaucracy that’s holding back our citizens,” Trump said. “It’s one of the biggest things we can be doing for our country.”
Specifically, Trump highlighted an expansion project for Interstate 75 south of Atlanta that has languished in the review phase for years.
The president said the revised NEPA rules would help jump-start that project, which would add truck-only lanes along I-75 from Macon to McDonough to reduce travel times for Atlanta-area drivers.
Trump also teased he is working with Gov. Brian Kemp on unspecified infrastructure projects in Georgia but did not go into specifics.
“We have some things planned in Georgia that will be really incredible and everyone’s going to want it,” Trump said.
Backers from trade and industry groups say the NEPA changes the president announced Wednesday would help relieve burdensome environmental reviews and spur needed infrastructure projects.
The American Petroleum Institute praised the move by Trump as a show of support for job-creating industries and a tool to help jump-start the economy amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today’s action is essential to U.S. energy leadership and environmental progress, providing more certainty to jump-start not only the modernized pipeline infrastructure we need to deliver cleaner fuels but highways, bridges and renewable energy,” said Mike Sommers, the institute’s president and CEO.
But critics have panned the review rollback, casting it as an attempt to gut key environmental safeguards that have been in place for decades.
They view the relaxed NEPA requirements as a potential means for high-polluting industries to face less scrutiny at the expense of environmental protection and initiatives aimed at curbing climate change.
“This unprecedented move silences the public – especially front-line communities who are impacted first and worst by climate change, COVID-19 and industrial pollution,” said the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council. “We will not let this stand.”
Georgia Democratic lawmakers and leaders also slammed the regulatory changes, arguing looser environmental rules could hurt minority communities the most.
“Georgia has a very poor track record when it comes to protecting communities of color, particularly when it comes to environmental justice issues,” said Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who now heads a voting rights group.
Further, local Democratic officials cast Trump’s visit to Atlanta as largely an attempt to boost support in the state ahead of the Nov. 3 general election, amid a wave of campaign advertisement buys and recent polls showing a tight race with Biden.
State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, dismissed Trump’s visit as a political maneuver that avoids addressing the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Georgia and across the U.S.
“Donald Trump needs to address the needs of everyday Georgians if he’s going to continue to make pit stops here in our state,” said Williams, D-Atlanta.
State Republican Party leaders have downplayed chances for Biden to win Georgia or for Democratic candidates to flip the two Republican-held U.S. Senate seats up for grabs or the state House of Representatives’ Republican majority.
“It is imperative that Georgians re-elect the president this November,” said Stewart Bragg, executive director of the Georgia Republican Party. “America needs a second term of the administration that never stops fighting for economic growth.”