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Flagship Enterprise Center

In Anderson, Indiana, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) helped to facilitate proper planning the environmental impacts during construction of the $2.7 million-dollar Flagship Enterprise Center – an 80,000 square foot small-business incubator.

During the environmental review process, project sponsors became aware of impacts to neighboring forested wetlands, which are home to migratory waterfowl.

As a result, provisions were added to the project to preclude negative effects on wetland hydrology, prevent storm water runoff from being directed to the wetland, and provide retention facilities to contain storm water within the current footprint of the project site. Additionally, a 26.5-acre forested wetland southwest of the Flagship Enterprise Center (FEC) was protected.

Construction was completed in 2005, and the FEC was approved as a certified microlender in 2010 by the Small Business Association. In 2015, the FEC reached $7 million in microloans

[1] “The Tenth Report on the National Environmental Policy Act Status for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 Activities and Projects.” White House Council on Environmental Quality. August 1, 2009. Available at:

[2] “Eco Industrial Business Park.” Madison County Council of Governments. Available at:

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Springfield High-Speed Rail Project

Originally built in 1973 to connect Chicago and Illinois’ state capital of Springfield, Amtrak’s State House line carves a path directly through the heart of downtown Springfield.

Later extended to St. Louis, the State House line continued to grow in use and popularity by both passenger and freight trains over the next few decades. As the city of Springfield also grew in size, the traffic congestion and delays caused by regular train crossings was becoming a major source of frustration among local residents.

Noise was also a concern. Train horns are required to be sounded at all public crossings to warn motorists and pedestrians when a train is approaching, 24 hours a day.

Data collected by the city on traffic delays caused by at-grade crossings confirmed what Springfield locals already knew – traffic congestion issue was worsening.

The report concluded: “With both car and train traffic projected to grow considerably in the intervening years…vehicle delays due to trains blocking crossings are projected to more than triple, from 13,800 vehicle-minutes per day today to 47,500 vehicle-minutes per day in 2030.”

When Amtrak and the Illinois Department of Transportation announced plans in 2006 to upgrade its tracks to accommodate demand for high-speed passenger rail service between Chicago and St. Louis, the city of Springfield voiced strong concerns about further local disruption from freight and passenger trains.

Because the $1.95 billion project required completion of an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), federal official were able to work with city officials and local residents to identify a long-term solution that would be submitted in a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Serving as liaisons between Springfield and the federal project team, a Stakeholder Advisory Group was formed that helped to identify and address key local concerns, provide community input, and build public trust in the project.

The final supplemental EIS concluded that the most effective solution would be to reroute trains from the historical 3rd Street corridor to the 10th Street while also adding several underpasses and one overpass.

After securing nearly $1.65 in federal funding, Amtrak broke ground on the $314 million Springfield project in 2014. The current 5 1/2-hour trip between St. Louis and Chicago has been cut by 22 minutes following improvements to tracks in Joliet and Springfield.

Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Randy Blankenhorn said in an interview with The State Journal-Register that top speeds of 100mph should save passengers a total of 53 minutes when the project is completed in 2019, pending installation of automated train-control and detection technology required for faster trains.

Speed limits in Springfield’s 3rd Street corridor are also slated to rise following completion of the project. The current speed limit is 25 mph; the limit will be raised by five miles per hour each week until it reaches 40 mph.

[1] “Springfield Rail Improvements Project.” Hanson Professional Services, Inc. Available at:

[2] “Record of Decision for the Springfield Rail Improvements Project.” U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration. December 2012. Available at:
[3] “Trains start moving faster along Springfield’s Third Street corridor.” The State Journal Register, October 22, 2018. Available at:
[4] “Illinois’ $2 billion, high-speed rail project in final phase.” The State Journal Register. December 15, 2017. Available at:

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Building 330 at Argonne National Laboratory

In 2009, the Department of Energy (DOE) proposed to demolish Building 330 at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, the former site of Chicago Pile-5. CP-5 was the fifth and last member of the distinguished family of ​“Chicago Pile” reactors, whose legacy ranges from the earliest efforts to develop nuclear reactors to current research aimed at retiring them safely.

After receiving funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – a long-time barrier preventing cleanup – the Department of Energy used the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to develop an Environmental Assessment for decontamination, removal of radioactive waste, and demolition of Building 330.

DOE also used the Environmental Assessment to bring together operational and environmental expertise from across multiple federal agencies to develop demolition and transportation approaches that better-protected workers and the public from potential hazards.

For example, the final project mandated that air monitoring be performed at the building site during demolition to ensure that the public would not be exposed to dangerous levels of radionuclides. It also required airborne contamination controls such as filters and barriers, along with personal protective equipment like respirators, to ensure the safety of the demolition workers.

“We had plans in place to demolish the building, but had difficulty finding the money to do it,” he said. ​“The ARRA funds allow us to complete this project ahead of schedule and let us keep more of our operating budget for research,” said Mark Peters, Deputy Laboratory Director for Programs.

[1] “Environmental Assessment: Proposed Demolition of Building 330 at Argonne National Laboratory.” U.S. Department of Energy. August 2009. Available at: 

[2] “Argonne awards $10 million contract to veteran-owned small business.” Argonne National Laboratory. December 16, 2009. Available at:

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Bell Smith Springs (Shawnee National Forest)

Nestled between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Shawnee National Forest covers some 260,000 acres of dense hardwood forest in Southern Illinois.

In the 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service proposed to allow a Missouri company to cut over 3,400 acres in a part of the forest called the Bell Smith Spring area, one of the most popular recreation areas in the forest – it contains eight miles of interconnected trails featuring strange and wonderful rock formations, such as Devil’s Backbone, Boulder Falls, and a natural rock bridge.

The Forest Service originally proposed cutting the pines as a routine commercial harvest, but before a permit could be granted the Forest Service was required to carry out an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This review process requires federal agencies to disclose a proposed project’s projected impacts on the environment, public health, and economic livelihood of local residents.

This NEPA review process revealed that the extensive logging proposed by the Forest Service would irreparably damage Bell Smith Springs and, when the Forest Service sought to approve the project anyway, environmentalists went to court.

Environmentalists stopped it on the grounds that it was clear-cutting. The Forest Service then slightly altered the plan, called it something else, and tried again. It was successfully blocked again, so USFS came back for a third time and called it “ecological restoration.”

This time, they explained, the pines needed cutting to restore the area to hardwoods, which had dominated before the land was cleared for farming about 100 years. This move, however, was again questioned. As environmental groups pointed out, hardwood saplings were already filling the understory of the mature pines, and the ridge-tops were predicted to revert to hardwood on their own within the next twenty years.

The proposed timber harvest near Bell Smith Springs was permanently halted, but without the NEPA process and its requirement for the disclosure of project impacts, it would have been extremely difficult for advocates to demonstrate the irreparable harm that would have fallen on Shawnee National Forest.

[1] “A case study on successes and failures in challenging logging activities with adverse cumulative effects on fish and wildlife.” Lewis & Clark Northwestern School of Law, 2002. Available at:

[2] “Soul of the Wilderness: can we stop trying to control nature?” International Journal of Wilderness. April 2000, Vol. 6, No. 01. Available at: 

Can We Stop Trying to Control Nature?

[3] “A Smart Infrastructure Plan Wouldn’t Gut Environmental Reviews.” Environmental Law and Policy Center. February 9, 2018 Available at:

A Smart Infrastructure Plan Wouldn’t Gut Environmental Reviews

[4] “Battle of Shawnee Forest Rooted in U.S. Land Debate.” Chicago Tribune. August 28, 1991. Available at:

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Chicago’s Harbor Lock

In the early 2000s, a little-noticed but vital piece of Chicago’s infrastructure was fast eroding and in dire need to replacement.

Despite years of expensive temporary fixes, Chicago’s 68-year-old Harbor lock continued to periodically malfunction resulting in the disruption of recreational and commercial boating and stoking fears about the remote but real potential threat of a downtown flood – when the lock’s gates malfunction, engineers lose their ability to open or close them, a last-resort safety valve that’s been used five times since 1996 during heavy rain to keep the Chicago River from overflowing its banks.

If the lock failed to open under such conditions, hundreds of millions of gallons of river water could spill into Union Station, Lower Wacker Drive and basements of buildings along the river. That’s far more than the roughly 250 million gallons that poured into downtown Chicago during the Loop Flood in April 1992, when a freight tunnel under the river was punctured.

Though the river normally is about a foot lower than Lake Michigan, the narrow channel rises much faster during downpours. Under the right conditions, less than 3 inches of rain over 12 to 24 hours can cause the river to rise 5½ feet. At that level, engineers with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago open the lock to prevent flooding.

A $17-million overhaul of the lock’s four steel gates in 1998 and 1999 was supposed to last at least 10 to 20 years, but the lock needed urgent repairs again two years ago when six of the eight rollers that move the 133-ton gates broke down.

Seeking a more permanent fix, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted an Environmental Assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to plan for repairs to existing breakwaters and replace. During the environmental review process, NEPA revealed a better method of repairing and extending the life of the breakwaters at a fraction of the replacement cost by replacing the structural steel sector gate leafs and associated hydraulic operating machinery. As a result, the new lock gates are designed to reduce repair and maintenance costs and prevent service disruptions. The new gates and operating machinery have fewer parts and are more reliable, and are modeled after the proven design of the Thomas J. O’Brien Lock.

Today, the Chicago Lock is fourth in the nation in terms of commercial lock usage and second in the nation in terms of recreational lock usage. On a busy day, 50-100 vessels can be locked at once.

[1] “Chicago Harbor Lock.” S. Army Corps of Engineers. 2009. Available at:

[2] “Clock ticks on Chicago Harbor lock.” Crain’s Chicago Business. June 4, 2006. Available at:

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Court Strikes Down Edgeville Uranium Mine Permit

Buried deep in the heart of the northern Great Plains, the pine-covered peaks of the Black Hills rise thousands of feet into the sky along the Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming borders.

To the Lakota people, this land is sacred – the Pahá Sápa is the center of their world. As Rick Two Dogs, an Oglala Lakota medicine man, explained: “All of our origin stories go back to this place. We have a spiritual connection to the Black Hills that can’t be sold. I don’t think I could face the Creator with an open heart if I ever took money for it.”

Unfortunately for the Lakota people, the Black Hills are also home to large deposits of gold and uranium ore.
Uranium was first mined and milled in Black Hills in the 1950s, but sustained community pressure coupled with a sudden drop in the price in uranium in the 1970s resulted in a cessation of activities.

The damage, however, had already been done. No less than 169 mines were left abandoned and un-reclaimed, leaving a trail of contained land and water southwest of Mount Rushmore.

The damage was made worse by pollution from a uranium mill in Edgemont. The mill’s tailings – the radioactive waste leftover from processing – sat on the edge of a creek that feeds into the Cheyenne River, and for many decades after, leached into the region’s water supply.

“No one did any human health studies of uranium impacts in this area.  But we know from research in the Southwest, that the combination of mines and tailings piles can have substantial health impacts,” said Dr. Lilias Jarding, PhD.

Without modern-day laws like the Clean Water Act or a federal environmental review process mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – laws Congress did not pass until 1969 and 1972 – the uranium mines or the impacts on the environment and public health were never disclosed to the surrounding communities before the project was approved, nor was there an opportunity for the public to weigh in and voice their concerns.

If the discovery of gold by General Armstrong Custer in 1874 prompted the US government to tear up the 1868 Fort Laramie treaty and steal the Lakota people’s land, then the discovery of uranium nearly a century later similarly prompted multi-national corporations to take that stolen land and pollute it.
Round two
By the mid-2000s, the price of yellowcake (minimally-processed uranium) had jumped from a low of $7 in the 1970s to a new high of $138. No less than eleven companies had soon expressed interest in re-starting mining operations in the Black Hills.

One company, in particular, drew the ire of local communities: Powertech Uranium. The subject of pending EPA action, Powertech published plans in 2006 for its proposed Dewey-Burdock project, which would have been located on 10,580 acres at the headwaters of the Cheyenne River, 50 miles west of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and 12 miles north of Edgemont. The project proposed drilling 4,000 deep injection wells into an aquifer used for domestic water and livestock using 9,000 gallons of water per minute.

Grassroots opposition to uranium mining began to swell again, led by three key organizations: Defenders of the Black Hills, founded in 2002 by Sioux Nation Treaty Council spokesperson White Face; Dakota Rural Action; and Clean Water Alliance, founded several years later in 2009. All three would prove instrumental in rallying support against the dangerous mine.

The City Council of Rapid City, South Dakota State Medical Association, and all nine tribal governments in South Dakota passed resolutions in opposition to the project.

Water is life

Opponents also cited the complex geology of the Black Hills.

In situ leach mining – the only way uranium mining is done – involves drilling hundreds of small wells over top of the uranium deposit, before pumping sodium bicarbonate concentrate into the individual aquifers and across the ore bed at high pressure in order to force the uranium out of the ground. This leach solution strips the uranium out of the aquifer – along with highly toxic arsenic, selenium, and other heavy metals.

If in situ leach mining sounds like dirty business, that’s because it is – even in the best of circumstances. But in order to prevent cross-contaminating multiple aquifers, the rock layers above and below the uranium mining aquifer must be continuous and without fractures.

The geology of the porous Black Hills, by contrast, is not. Groundwater flows freely through natural fissures and cracks to feed massive underground aquifers across the entire region. To pollute one aquifer is to pollute an uncounted number of the rest.

But Powertech took it one step further, planning to pump uranium wastewater directly into another aquifer used by area residents through four deep disposal wells. All told, the project would have impacted water from three of the four major drinking water sources in the Black Hills.
We talk, you listen
When first generation uranium miners came to the Black Hills in the 1950s, modern-day environmental laws were non-existent – it would be another twenty years before the EPA was founded.

Now, things are different. Before Powertech could begin mining for uranium, it would have to undergo robust environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and secure eleven federal, state, and county permits.

Passed into law into law with broad bipartisan support in 1969, NEPA requires the federal government to engage in a review process designed to discover any potential environmental, public health, or cultural impacts before a decision is made and the relevant permits are issued.

Although NEPA isn’t the only law project sponsors have to comply with – the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Historic Preservation Act are other examples – it’s the glue that holds the entire process together and keeps everything on track. Without NEPA, individual permit applications would become separated and balkanized, slowing the review process down.

A key component of this NEPA review process are mandated public comment periods that provide an outlet for citizens to speak out and voice their concerns about a potential project’s impact on their community.

At least, that’s how the NEPA process is supposed to work. The NRC, EPA and other participating agencies began work to analyze Powertech’s proposed project in early 2009, but didn’t begin consulting with impacted communities – especially tribal groups – until much later.

Still, when public hearings were eventually held in August of 2014, concerned community members packed into buildings to express their outrage and voice their opposition to Powertech’s Dewey-Burdock project.

Two hearings in Hot Springs proved particularly contentious.

From the outset, many members of the public expressed concern of NRC’s choice of location and apparent unwillingness to hold the hearings closer to impacted communities.

Mayor of Edgemont Carl Shaw was particularly vocal; “I am disappointed that all regulatory agencies that have had hearings for this project have refused hold them where the people will truly be affected, and that is Edgemont. Even though we have more than one ample facility to hold the hearings.”

City attorney Joel Landeen also testified, making clear that both the Mayor and City Council of Rapid City were vehemently opposed to the project.

“Since you are probably not from the area, to put it in perspective, Rapid City is a city of approximately 70,000 people, which is the largest city in the Black Hills region…Tens of thousands of people rely on this aquifer for their water, and we are really concerned that it not be contaminated in any way and still be a viable drinking source for the city of Rapid City and the other communities and people living in the Black Hills region,” testified Landeen.

Hot Springs Councilmember DeAnn McComb made her own impassioned plea. “This is our drinking water. Our bathing water. The water we enjoy swimming in. This is a vacation area, resort area. People from all over the world come to enjoy our area.”

Local resident David Miller also expressed concerns about the project’s long-term impacts. “I don’t believe that we’re capable of mitigating long term damage of the kind that Powertech, the kind of mining they’re proposing.”

If there is a question as to whether a project will impact tribal land, federal agencies are required by law to consult with the tribe’s historic preservation office. Tribal groups were sure to voice their own concerns at three similar hearings in Rapid City.

Oglala Lakota tribal member Dennis Yellow Thunder implored the NRC to stop the project. “We are very connected to the sacred water,” he said. “It’s up to us to defend that water. When you make your decision, feel that heartbeat. Help us. Help us to survive.”

Michael Catches Enemy, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO), stressed the federal government’s treaty obligations and public trust responsibility to protect the tribe’s cultural resources.

“I am Lakota and I am the land,” he said in his introduction. “It may sound profound or unrealistic, but if we have sovereign nations, such as we carry ourselves, regardless of our status in most American minds, we still see ourselves with treaty rights.”

The 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty originally guaranteed “absolute and undisturbed” use of the Black Hills under the jurisdiction of the Great Sioux Nation.

Unfortunately, the NRC failed to incorporate any of this information into its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

Indeed, the final environmental review was so egregious that Ogala Sioux Tribe President Bryan Brewer complained in a subsequent letter to the NRC that the application failed “to assess even the detailed information contained in sworn oral testimony during hearings at the early stages of the State of South Dakota permitting process.”

The letter summarily concluded that “the review prepared by Powertech failed to include any direct input from any tribal sources, whether written or oral,” urging NRC staff to “abandon its current approach of prematurely finalizing its NEPA and NHPA documents until proper steps can be taken to ensure a competent cultural resource impact review.”

Nonetheless, the NRC approved Powertech’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), granting it a key permit.
Court of Appeals strikes down NRC permit
The NRC’s decision to sign off on the environmental review was met with immediate skepticism. Indeed, the agency’s own Atomic Safety and Licensing Board soon after acknowledged that the EIS was inadequate and had failed to take the required “hard look” at the project’s impacts. The agency, however, decided to leave the license in place while it worked to fix the environmental review, reasoning that it wouldn’t cause irreparable harm.

That decision was immediately challenged in court and struck down by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (Oglala Sioux Tribe v. NRC, No. 17-1059). Siding with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which had worried that the project would lead to the destruction of cultural, historical, and religious sites, Chief Judge Merrick Garland wrote that the law “obligates every federal agency to prepare an adequate environmental impact statement before taking any major action, which includes issuing a uranium mining license.”

Judge Garland wrote that the EIS did not just contain a “technical violation of NEPA,” but that the NRC’s failure to consider impacts on the tribe was a “significant deficiency.”

Moreover, the judge noted that the NRC’s action appeared to be part of a larger systemic pattern of abuse.

“This was not a one-off decision by the NRC… Rather, it appears to be the agency’s settled practice,” noting that the NRC had previously allowed a license for uranium projects in Wyoming and Nebraska to remain in effect despite findings that NRC staff had not complied with NEPA.

The Black Hills were again safe from the specter of uranium mining, at least for now.

NEPA under attack
When environmentalist lay claim to Powertech’s Dewey-Burdock project as a NEPA “success story,” critics will rightly point out that the NRC’s Environmental Impact Statement was found to be deficient in the extreme and did not incorporate any of the concerns voiced by members of the local community.

Nonetheless, the NEPA process still served an important role. When federal agencies fail to perform appropriate outreach to affected communities or don’t incorporate that input into their analyses, the NEPA process ensures that members of the public are able to hold the government accountable when it violates the law.

When a federal court ruled that the NRC unlawfully advanced Powertech’s uranium mining project, that’s exactly what happened.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration and members of Congress – backed by powerful special interests – have mounted an all-out assault on both NEPA and public access to the courts. In the current Congress, more than 100 pieces of legislation have been introduced over the past two years aimed at weakening the substance of environmental reviews and restricting citizens’ access to the courts.

Many of these legislative proposals aimed at weakening the substance of environmental reviews under NEPA are labeled under the deceptive headings of “streamlining” and “permitting reform.” One of the worst examples of such legislation came in 2012 when Congress passed legislation entitled “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” (MAP-21).

More recent legislative attacks include the “American Energy Independence and Job Creation Act” (H.R. 49), which would open up parts of Alaska to oil and gas drilling by deeming an outdated 30-year-old environmental review to satisfy the requirements of NEPA and require all public comments be submitted within 20 days of the project’s publication. Just as controversially, the “Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017” (H.R. 2936) would exclude up to 30,000 acres in National Forests from any environmental review or public input for activities such as logging – for context, that’s over 22,000 football fields.

“Wealthy corporations and members of Congress know that they could never outright repeal NEPA because, for many federal infrastructure projects, it is the only law that gives the public influence over what happens in their own backyards – there would be a massive public backlash,” said Raul Garcia, Senior Legislative Counsel at Earthjustice. “So instead they’ve introduced bill after bill chipping away at public input and the environmental review process. It’s a death by a thousand cuts.”

Since taking office, President Trump and the current administration has also moved to swiftly roll back NEPA. Administrative rulemaking is underway at almost every federal agency, from the Departments of Transportation and Interior all the way down to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. No agency is too small.

Topping it all off, in the summer of 2018 the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced plans to re-examine the NEPA’s implementing procedures across the entire government.

NEPA’s regulations are among the most broadly applicable in the entire federal government and apply to every “major federal action” the government takes, but the actual law – the statute – is very short. In other words, the real substance of NEPA is largely contained in its implementing regulations,” said Garcia.

That’s where the White House CEQ comes in. A small but critically important office housed inside the White House, the Chair of CEQ is tasked with the implementation of NEPA’s implementing regulations. In other words, the Chair of CEQ has immense power to shape – and potentially severely weaken – how environmental reviews are carried out across every federal agency.

Adding to the controversy, CEQ only offered 60 days for public comment on a rulemaking process that opponents say could affect every person in the United States on a level that eclipses even tax reform. Despite the short comment period, CEQ received over 100,000 comments, the vast majority of which urged CEQ drop the rulemaking process and ensure the continued integrity of the federal environmental review process. As one commenter succinctly stated: “leave NEPA alone.”

“Supporters of reasonable protections and public engagement have been trying to fend off these attacks, but the job is only getting harder,” said Garcia. “Rich corporate interests keep couching their actions as ‘streamlining’ but the hoax is up. The public knows that what they really want is to eliminate NEPA, making the communities across the country powerless to whatever ill-conceived projects they invent behind closed doors.”


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NRDC Sues U.S. DOT as the Gateway Project Stalls

With the government shutdown over, at least for now, NRDC, on January 28, 2019, filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York under the Freedom of Information Act. The reason? To find out why the Trump administration has prevented the Environmental Impact Statement for the Hudson Tunnel—part of the urgently needed Gateway Project—from being published.

Despite the President’s call for faster environmental reviews of projects, the White House seems to have subverted the review process to slow down a project he doesn’t want to move forward.

A major, and probably the most critical project for the nation’s economy, is building a new tunnel under the Hudson River. According to the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the existing tunnel, over 100 years old, suffered serious damage during Hurricane Sandy, and its replacement is critical for the health of our economy. When the tunnel needs to be closed for safety reasons, as it did after Sandy, the cost to the economy is estimated at over $100 million a day.
Timeline of Events
The environmental analysis of the Gateway project was slated to be completed on March 30, 2018, according to the White House website, which was perfectly in step with the President’s demand that project reviews be finished in no more than two years.

All was well, everything was apparently on time, but then the Department of Transportation went mum. Despite it now being 10 months later, the March 30th date had, until recently, still been listed as the deadline with no new notations added. Over the past six weeks, the deadline and status dates were recently removed from government dashboards.

NRDC, which supports the Tunnel’s construction and recognizes its necessity, requested last spring that the Department of Transportation provide an update on the status of the project. Crickets. In September, we filed a Freedom of Information Request, which required by law a response from the agency in 30 days. Crickets.

The major concern centers on how the Trump administration may have stymied the environmental review process – jeopardizing the economy of the New York region and the nation.
NEPA—National Environmental Policy Act
The administration often plays fast and loose with the facts dealing with NEPA, which is designed to ensure decisions made by federal agencies consider environmental impacts. The administration has previously highlighted three projects as “evidence” for proposing radical changes to the environmental review process—in the name of “speeding up,” but really steamrolling, the review process. Their rationale was categorically false, and we called their bluff.

Now, the administration is changing its tune—apparently slowing down the NEPA process, at the expense of millions of rail users.

Make no mistake, NEPA is essential to ensuring that federal projects consider the environmental impact of their actions and give the public a chance to comment on the effects of a proposed project. In this case, the Hudson Tunnel will improve the environment and decrease carbon pollution by preventing commuters and Amtrak users from being diverted to polluting airplanes and automobiles.

One of the many false statements in the State of the Union last year was that it takes 10 years to perform environmental reviews to build a simple road. But a White House study shows that most environmental reviews, even for the biggest project, takes much closer to the goal of two years. Ironically, the critic who gave the President the idea of “Two years not 10” said of this project:

“The importance of Gateway is undeniable. There are no serious arguments against the project. Nor are there any serious alternatives. Delay in starting work will only raise costs, drag down the regional economy, and cause environmental harm.”

This FOIA lawsuit should lead to the public knowing the truth—and this urgently needed project moving forward once and for all.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) works to safeguard the earth—its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.

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The Interior Department Is Using Faulty Logic to Justify New Oil Projects

The Beaufort Sea along Alaska’s north coast is bitter cold, packed with marine life, and underlain with millions of gallons of oil. Since the 1980s, oil companies have targeted a shallow area five miles from shore—between Prudhoe Bay, once North America’s most productive oil field, and the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest wildlife refuge in the country—to build an oil and gas production facility, the first in Alaska’s federal waters. But they were stymied by technical problems, ever-expanding budget estimates, and regulatory concerns.

Now, as the Trump administration pursues oil and gas development with fervor, drilling there might finally happen. In October, after Houston-based Hilcorp Energy Company acquired a lease to the land, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, signed off on a plan to develop the site, known as the Liberty Energy Project. If Hilcorp decides to go forward with the project, the company will build a nine-acre gravel island six miles offshore to base their operations and bury a seven-mile pipeline under the seafloor to connect the extracted oil and natural gas to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

To gain approval for major energy projects like this one, U.S. law requires that BOEM take stock of how the project would affect the environment. The resulting document, known as an environmental impact statement, details the risks that proposed infrastructure and a potential oil spill might pose to the region’s caribou herds, breeding shorebirds, polar bears, and passing bowhead whales, as well as the project’s impact on water and air quality, including climate change.

However, if you look carefully at the section on the environmental consequences of greenhouse gas emissions for the Liberty Project (on page 4-52), the agency draws a surprising conclusion: That extracting 120 million barrels of oil from beneath the Arctic Ocean over the project’s 15-to-20-year lifetime would reduce global carbon emissions, and by no small amount. According to the agency, developing Liberty would save more than 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—or the equivalent carbon pollution emitted by 5.3 million cars over a year. In other words, the report determines that transporting and dumping gravel in the ocean to construct an artificial island, drilling into the seafloor to capture buried oil, and extracting some 70,000 barrels of the stuff each day at peak production is better for Earth’s climate than doing nothing at all.

Endicott Island is a 45-acre manmade gravel island, constructed in 1987, used as an offshore drilling platform off Prudhoe Bay in state waters in the Beaufort Sea. If Hilcorp Energy goes forward with the Liberty Energy Project, the company would construct a similar, but smaller, nine-acre gravel island to drill for oil beneath the seafloor in federal waters. Photo: James P. Blair/National Geographic Image Collection

“That’s just a crazy, crazy analysis,” says Jeremy Lieb, an attorney at Earthjustice, a non-profit legal firm that focuses on environmental issues. Last month, the Center for Biological Diversity and a host of other conservation groups represented by Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior, which oversees BOEM, on the grounds that the agency’s environmental analysis of the Liberty Project distorts the damages associated with drilling and ignores basic economic principles. “It appears to be a convenient way for agencies to rationalize that any individual project will have essentially no effect on global greenhouse gas emissions,” Lieb says.

The use of a model that undersells carbon emissions appears to be a directive coming from inside the Department of Interior. When Audubonasked Frances Mann, a BOEM biologist who worked on the environmental impact statement for the Liberty Project, about the climate analysis, she said, “we used the models that we were required to use.”

The BOEM report reasons that in place of oil coming out of the Arctic, nearly the same amount of oil would be produced elsewhere in the world from places with “comparatively weaker environmental protection standards” and “increased emissions from transportation,” according to the federal document.

A Spectacled Eider lifts off from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the Trump administration is aggressively pushing plans to drill for oil and gas. In a recently released environmental impact statement for that project, the Interior Department used debunked models for calculating the climate impact of the project, an effort one economist described as an intentional obfuscation. Photo: Peter Mather/National Geographic Image Collection

This assumes that any oil not extracted in the Arctic would be replaced with foreign oil that uses dirtier methods and costs more to transport, ultimately emitting more carbon. That logic requires some economic gymnastics, says Gilbert Metcalf, an economist at Tufts University who specializes in energy and climate policy. “I just don’t find it credible,” he says. It’s more likely that Arctic oil would be replaced by oil from fracked wells in the United States, like those common in North Dakota and Texas, rather than overseas oil, Metcalf says. What’s more, producing oil in the Arctic is no pristine operation—it emits more carbon than oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a 2015 report released by the Carnegie Foundation, because of the difficulties of extracting oil in such harsh conditions.

The analysis makes another error, says Peter Erickson, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, an international research and policy non-profit organization. Basic economic models show that when more oil is produced in the United States, more oil is bought and combusted internationally. That’s because when there’s more oil on the market, prices drop—simple supply-and-demand economics. The Liberty Project analysis, and others, don’t fully take this effect into account, he says; they ignore the fact that the extraction of fossil fuels actually increases global carbon emissions.

“The underlying assumption is very common,” Erickson says. For years, including before Trump took office, government reports failed to account for the likely increase in consumption. Erickson first flagged the error in the analysis of the Keystone XL Pipeline, writing in a 2014 Nature Climate Change report that the State Department underestimated the project’s overall emissions—the difference between releasing up to 27 million tons of carbon dioxide annually and up to 110 million tons. “There was this sort of giant blind spot,” Erickson says.

BOEM also miscalculated carbon emissions in its draft analysis of Arctic and Atlantic offshore oil drilling in 2016, he says. After that, though, the agency seemed to learn from its mistakes. In November 2016, a BOEM report found that halting new drilling projects over five years would lower foreign oil consumption by billions of barrels. This could decrease global carbon emissions by up to 2.3 billion tons, Erickson estimates, more carbon than the entire U.S. transportation sector emits in a year.

If Hilcorp goes forward with the Liberty Project, it will bury a seven-mile pipeline under the seafloor to carry extracted oil and gas to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, shown here. It takes around 12 days for oil and gas to move from Prudhoe Bay through more than 800 miles of above-ground pipe built in Alaska’s wilderness to the endpoint at Valdez Marine Terminal. Photo: Dermot Tatlow/Panos Pictures/R​edux

This argument has held up in court. In 2017, a federal judge struck down another flawed emissions analysis conducted by the Bureau of Land Management on a coal project in Colorado. “She said very specifically [that] it’s irrational to say increase in supply is not going to increase consumption,” Erickson says.

Yet despite increased recognition of the problem, the Liberty Project environmental impact statement relies on debunked reasoning to conclude that developing the site would result in lower carbon emissions. This is an intentional move on the part of the Interior Department, Erickson says. “It’s not a misguided model; it’s a purposeful misuse of the model,” he says. “It’s enabling their decision and their allowance to expand the fossil fuel supply.”

Federal agencies continue to use the same flawed model in analyses of other new energy projects. A draft report detailing how drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would impact the environment, released December 20 by the Bureau of Land Management, also failed to account for the global increase in emissions from development. “It appears as if [the Bureau of Land Management] is purposefully obfuscating the question of the global oil market and CO2 emissions implications,” Erickson told Audubon over email.

This comes at a time when the world needs to reduce carbon emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe, according to a recent United Nations report—and yet emissions continue to accelerate. Halting fossil fuel expansion is the only way to reduce carbon emissions in a meaningful way, Erickson says. “The climate problem is a fossil fuel problem. There’s no debate around that.”

This story was originally published on Audubon is a nonprofit dedicated to saving birds and the places they need today and tomorrow. For more stories from Audubon magazine or to learn about Audubon’s conservation work, visit the Audubon website.

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Senate Committee Pushes McNamee FERC Nomination Forward, Driven by Millions in Fossil Fuel Money

Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee voted on Tuesday to push the controversial nomination of Bernard McNamee for Commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to the full Senate, on a mostly party-line vote.

McNamee currently leads the Office of Policy at the Department of Energy, where he helped to roll out Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s failed attempt to bail out the coal and nuclear industries. His resume reads like a who’s who in the fossil fuel industry and the far-right political crowd.

McNamee has deep ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Koch-funded organization that has provided a pipeline of Trump nominees, including the former nominee to the Council For Environmental Quality that even Republicans agreed was unqualified for the job. It was there that McNamee spearheaded “Life: Powered,” a project launched by the group in 2015 “to combat the Obama-era Clean Power Plan,” according to TPPF’s 2017 annual report. He also served as a senior advisor and counsel to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). This past Earth Day, he authored a love letter to fossil fuels that implored Americans to remember how “the responsible use of America’s abundant resources of natural gas, oil and coal have dramatically improved the human condition.”

Joe Manchin joined Republicans in voting for McNamee, 13-10, even in spite of a recent video that shows McNamee criticizing renewable energy and expressing strong support for the sole use of fossil fuels – as well as describing environmental advocacy as “tyranny.” This vote serves to underscore a continuing problem in Washington: that a nominee who, on the record, has showed significant bias toward the fossil fuel industry, is lauded and promoted by Senators to lead the very agency where he is expected to remain impartial.

The 13 Senators who voted in the Committee to move McNamee’s nomination forward have taken a combined total of nearly $10 million from the fossil fuel industry – bought and paid for by an industry that accelerates the climate crisis and only cares about protecting their profits. It is evident that fossil fuel money is both crippling our democracy and destroying our climate, influencing the structural branches of government that regulate our nation’s infrastructure and energy supply.

The key numbers breakdown:

Combined fossil fuel contributions to Senators voting for McNamee: nearly $10,000,000
Average lifetime dirty energy money per Senator voting for McNamee: $755,219
Average lifetime dirty energy money per Senator voting against McNamee: $88,682

That works out to more than 8 times the dirty energy money taken by those voting in favor of McNamee’s nomination than the average of those voting against the clearly fossil-biased pick. Today’s vote moving McNamee’s nomination forward shows that the industry’s grip on Washington politics is still suffocating our democracy. McNamee will go before the Senate next month for a full vote on his nomination, where we will have one more chance to push against the industry’s influence and prevent McNamee from becoming the next Commissioner of FERC.


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EPA Clouds Transparency for Environmental Impact Statements

The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to stop the combination of letter and numeral grades for evaluating Environmental Impact Statements prepared by the federal agencies. The two-factor grading system graded both the quality of the analysis and the actual level of environmental impact. This change will dim the transparency of the federal agencies’ work. This new policy will make it much harder for the public or press to judge early-on the seriousness of environmental impacts of the project and the quality of the agencies’ analysis of that impact. There’s a simple analogy: What if we got rid of grades in schools?

Teacher Ben:
“Well class, as you requested, we will no longer grade your final examinations. However, we will continue to put comments in the margins of your exams where we think more work is needed. We will not send a letter grades to your parents but will send them a copy of your final essay with our comments in the margins.”
Who does this help? Bueller?

Since 1984 EPA have evaluated environmental impact statements of federal agencies for both the adequacy of the NEPA documentation and the actual level of environmental impacts. They also make specific comments to the environmental analysis.  They will continue with specific comments but no longer have a clear summary grade.

The EPA website lists the grading options (reprinted before the material is deleted from the EPA website):
EPA has developed a set of criteria for rating a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). EPA rates the draft EIS on an alpha-numeric system and includes the designated rating in EPA’s comment letter. In general, the rating is based on the lead agency’s preferred alternative. The rating system provides a basis upon which EPA makes recommendations to the lead agency for improving the draft EIS. The alphabetical categories listed below signify EPA’s evaluation of the environmental impacts of the proposal: 
LO (Lack of Objections)
EC (Environmental Concerns)
EO (Environmental Objections)
​EU (Environmentally Unsatisfactory)
The numerical categories listed below signify an evaluation of the adequacy of the draft EIS: 
1 (Adequate)
2 (Insufficient Information)
3 (Inadequate)
The rating of the draft EIS consists of one of the category combinations shown below:
EC-1, EC-2
EO-1, EO-2, EO-3
​EU-1, EU-2, EU-3, or 3
(October 26, 2018)
The combined letter-numerical system was simple, edifying and useful to the press and public.

On October 22, however, EPA announced it would end the grading policy. Before announcing this abrupt change of this Reagan Administration policy, EPA did not talk to environmental advocates, project sponsors, states, tribes or other affected groups. EPA did get input from—using my analogy—the students—the federal agencies, who thought dropping the grading system was a swell idea. Better to hide inadequately prepared environmental reviews as well as the seriousness of the likely environmental impacts? Agencies argued that grading was inconsistent among EPA Regions but that issue exists in almost all grading that are not true-false or multiple choice. 

The National Environmental Policy Act is a foundational environmental statute meant to give the public a chance to comment and understand what the federal government is doing an action that may significantly impact the environment or their community. Making this material accessible is very important. The Trump administration and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, evidently think differently. Now, affected communities will not have a heads-up from environmental experts at EPA on the seriousness of the environmental threat unless they trudge through the high technical comments of the EPA and the often-technical language in the environmental review.

EPA is still required by Section 309 of the Clean Air Act to evaluate and send comments on the EISs to the agency responsible. Under law, EPA must still forward projects that would have an unsatisfactory environmental impact to the Council of Environmental Quality but the memo announcing this new policy noted that such a referral would be “rare.” The original plan, outlined in President Trump’s Infrastructure Plan, was to repeal the Clean Air Act provision thereby eliminating both the EPA review and consequently the referral to CEQ for projects that had an unsatisfactory environmental impacts. Removing the grading system is their Option B.

Scott Slesinger is Legislative Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  

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