Debit Limit Compromise Weakens Bedrock Environmental Law

Biden signs law bringing back Trump-era “NEPA modernization” that speeds up construction permits and allows some projects to bypass environmental reviews.
June 8, 2023

A bill signed by President Joe Biden potentially averted a financial disaster but also weakened one of the nation’s premier environmental laws, a decision that could significantly affect health and the environment in the Hoosier State.

The bipartisan Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 was signed into law by Biden just days before a predicted default of U.S. debts suspended the debt ceiling for two years, allowing the government to borrow money from the public through the issuance of securities like bills, notes and bonds to pay its debts.

The law also weakened the reach of the National Environmental Policy Act, a law that requires federal agencies to evaluate the potential environmental effects of actions they propose to carry out, fund or approve.

The final version of the bill made permanent a number of changes to NEPA introduced during the Trump administration that were called “the single biggest giveaway to polluters” and were later repealed by the Biden administration, including allowing some projects to bypass environmental reviews and setting limits on the scope and duration of the reviews.

The fiscal responsibility law changes language in the NEPA law that makes it easier to challenge decisions in court, and limits the length of environmental impact statements investigations to two years and the statements themselves to 150 pages in length. It also allows more widespread use of “categorical exclusions,” categories of actions determined by agencies to not have a significant effect on the human environment, and gives more power to political appointees to determine how NEPA requirements are implemented.

The NEPA law changes will have an impact on future infrastructure projects throughout Indiana.

Environmental impact statements have helped minimize risks from projects like the planned Mid-States Corridor, various sections of the Interstate 69 project, multiple pipeline projects and renewable energy projects. On average, projects have taken between four or five years to go from inception to construction due to NEPA requirements.

Most of Indiana’s U.S. representatives voted for the bill, with only Rep. Victoria Spartz voting against it. Rep. Jim Banks did not issue a vote. The U.S. Senate saw a split decision from the Hoosier delegation. U.S. Sen. Mike Braun voted against the bill, saying it didn’t cut spending enough. Sen. Todd Young voted for the bill, but said more spending cuts would be needed in the future.

In a speech to the nation, Biden touted the bipartisan nature of the deal, but did not address the NEPA changes.

“No one got everything they wanted, but the American people got what they needed. We averted an economic crisis, an economic collapse. We’re cutting spending and bringing the deficit down at the same time. We’re protecting important priorities, from social security to Medicare, to Medicaid, to veterans, to our transformational investments in infrastructure and clean energy,” Biden said.

The bill also included a provision that would give a pipeline transporting natural gas through West Virginia and Virginia all permits necessary to begin construction within 21 days. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is owned by NextEra Energy Resources, a company that has contributed heavily to the campaigns of senior Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate. The company and its subsidiaries also own at least six wind energy and battery storage projects in Indiana.

Environmental groups criticized Congressional Republicans for refusing to pass a debt bill that did not include provisions detrimental to the environment, but were hesitant to criticize Biden for signing the bill into law.

“Despite what Congressional Republicans may believe, one of the most basic functions of government — paying our bills — is not a tool to hold our country hostage or capitulate to special interests’ intent on destroying the planet,” said Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous before Biden signed the bill. “In manufacturing the crisis, our government has said the quiet part out loud: America is still open for business when it comes to the fossil fuel industry. It did not have to be this way.”

Debit Limit Compromise Weakens Bedrock Environmental Law