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Dominion’s James River Transmission Project

More than 400 years of American history, including the first permanent English settlement in North America, were placed at critical risk in 2017 after the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on a nearly 7-mile-long stretch of massive 295-foot transmission towers within sight of Historic Jamestown and Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia.

Dominion Virginia Power, a for-profit energy company sponsoring the project, maintained that the state needed the energy from the power lines without which the regions could face rolling blackouts. However, the transmission project was met with considerable skepticism from local officials as well as other federal agencies who criticized the project on the basis that transmission construction would have adverse impacts on historically significant land and endangered species within the area.

Moreover, research from a 2015 report from the National Parks Conservation Association and Princeton Energy Research International suggested that Dominion’s underlying case for building massive transmission towers was based on faulty analysis – Dominion’s transmission line would provide more than four times the needed grid capacity.

The Army Corps of Engineers nonetheless pushed forward with the project, carrying out analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Passed into law with bipartisan support in 1969, NEPA requires federal agencies to complete an environmental review identifying and publicly disclosing any potential environmental, public health, or cultural impacts a project may have before a decision is made and the relevant permits are issued.

There was only one problem – the Army Corps of Engineers decided to carry out an Environmental Assessment (EA) instead of a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Whereas EAs are prepared for smaller projects and in cases where the impacts are uncertain, agencies are required to carry out an EIS for major projects like power plants and interstate highways.

Choosing to ignore tens of thousands of comments from concerned citizens as well as sharp criticism from other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the project would have no major impacts and that a detailed EIS was unnecessary. The Corps approved the project in 2017.

However, in a landmark court decision in March 2019, a federal appeals court found that the Army Corps of Engineers approval of Dominion’s transmission project to be in violation of NEPA on the basis that the permit was based on private research, lacked transparency and public engagement, and that the Corps  should have conducted an EIS.

Judge David Tatel described the significance of the area in detail, recounting Capt. John Smith’s voyage into the Chesapeake Bay and up the James River. “These journeys came to symbolize our nation’s founding and to serve as an equally important reminder of one of the darkest episodes in our history — the settlers’ devastation of Native American populations,” he wrote.
[1] “Appellate Court Says Corps Should Have Prepared EIS On James River Transmission Line.” National Parks Traveler. March 1, 2019. Available at:
[2] Natl. Parks Cons. Assoc. v. Todd Semonite, et al. No. 18-5179 (D.C. Circ. 2019). Available at:
https://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/87FABC162438AE4B852583B000549984/$file/18-5179.pdf
[3] “Court decision could doom already built Va. power line.” E&E News. March 1, 2019. Available at:
https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060122819
[4] “5 Myths and 5 Facts About Dominion’s Ill-Conceived Transmission Line Plan at Historic Jamestown.” National Parks Conservation Association. October 21, 2016. Available at:
https://www.npca.org/articles/1346-5-myths-and-5-facts-about-dominion-s-ill-conceived-transmission-line-plan

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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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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:
LO
EC-1, EC-2
EO-1, EO-2, EO-3
​EU-1, EU-2, EU-3, or 3
https://www.epa.gov/nepa/environmental-impact-statement-rating-system-criteria
(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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5 Recommendations to Speed Infrastructure Permitting Without Gutting Environmental Review

Getty/Justin SullivanWorkers construct scaffolding on a bridge in California, March 2014.

There is significant bipartisan agreement that the need to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure is critical. However, the environmental review process for permitting these infrastructure projects often becomes the scapegoat for any delays. Because of this, there have been a number of efforts to amend, weaken, and even scrap federal environmental review requirements over the years. But this review is critical—not only because it protects clean air and clean water for U.S. residents but also because it allows for public input to be collected and considered, ensuring that affected communities have a chance to weigh in on project alternatives.
Over the past six years, Congress has acted on three separate occasions to address common permitting challenges, passing the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) in 2014, and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2015. These bills provide the federal government with an array of tools to expedite permitting processes, without sacrificing environmental considerations and community input. But with President Donald Trump’s issuance of Executive Order 13807 in August 2017, environmental review is again on the chopping block.
Instead of asking Congress to cut corners and gut cornerstone environmental laws, here are five ways that federal agencies and their partners can use the tools already at their disposal to speed infrastructure permitting.

1. Fully implement existing permitting reforms and authorities that were enacted in the FAST Act, the WRRDA, and MAP-21
The three pieces of legislation noted above provided a number of new tools to federal agencies to speed environmental review. But the Trump administration continues to point to the permitting process as the main cause for project delays. Limited existing data, however, show that delays are more often the result of a lack of funding, failure to govern, and even politics.
As one way to address this, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish a public-facing online tracking system of projects in the permitting process. Project sponsors and the public are now able to use the tracking system—known as the Federal Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard—to expedite projects and understand the true causes of any delays. The permitting dashboard is still very much a work in progress, but it has significant untapped potential that could be improved through an investment in resources to ensure that it is upgraded on a regular basis.
Additionally, extensive and rigorous training components for subject matter experts across the government on how these new tools and authorities affect their work would ensure that the tools are being effectively employed. The Annual Report to Congress for Fiscal Year 2017 from the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC) shows that each agency has at least one updated online training tool. Leaders of permitting in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) should prioritize developing a strong community of practice across the government so that practitioners can regularly share case studies, training tools, and data needs.

2. Appoint people with collaborative project implementation and permitting expertise across the government
It is impossible for environmental review, and therefore permitting, to be streamlined without appropriate staff to do the work. Yet President Trump has failed to appoint people to key positions that could help accelerate project delivery, including positions within the EOP that are integral to coordinating reviews. In 2015, the FPISC was established to bring agencies together to discuss review challenges and share best practices, as well as to provide a connection to the EOP and the president. Yet the Trump administration has still not appointed anyone to lead the FPISC, which indicates a lack of high-level investment in permitting. The administration should make it a priority to fill these positions if it wants to see expedited permitting timelines.

3. Fund environmental review through implementing existing fee authority for cost recovery and regular appropriations
The FAST Act allowed the FPISC to create “a fee structure for project proponents to reimburse the United States for reasonable costs incurred in conducting environmental reviews and authorizations” for certain projects. The FPISC, however, has taken far too long to begin implementing this provision given the relative priority the Trump administration claims to place on expedited permitting. This new source of funding could help substantially, as permitting under the FAST Act only applies to the most complex projects.

4. Study and collect data on environmental review contracting practices
Federal agencies frequently turn to outside firms to conduct environmental reviews. For example, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has contracted with Environmental Management and Planning Solutions Inc. to do the environmental review for oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The contract award is for $1,667,550.44, and information from the General Services Administration shows that the federal contractor bills $214 per hour for a senior scientist’s time. While this may be a bargain for taxpayers, it is difficult to say for certain given the lack of data and other information on the frequency, cost, or efficacy of outsourcing essential environmental analysis. To address this, Congress should work with the U.S. Government Accountability Office to study and gather information about federal contracting practices for environmental review across the federal government.

5. Remove political influence from the environmental review process
The permitting review process must be objective and free from the political interests and conflicts that can so easily stall, delay, or even derail infrastructure projects. But the administration’s handling of the Hudson Tunnel project, an infrastructure proposal to modernize the bridges and tunnels that ferry more than 200,000 commuters per day to and from New Jersey and Manhattan, lays bare the current level of political meddling in the review process. Since a bipartisan meeting in September 2017, the president has refused to fund the project unless the Senate agrees to fund the southern border wall. The Trump administration points to burdensome environmental reviews as the culprit for delay—yet recently, an administration official was quoted as saying that the administration is “slow-walking” the completed review’s release.

Conclusion
Already, there is evidence that these tools, when used, can ensure that environmental review of major infrastructure projects is efficient. Instead of rushing headlong into further gutting the statutes that provide for public input on infrastructure and that protect clean air, clean water, and wildlife, the administration should put its existing toolkit to use.
Christy Goldfuss is the senior vice president for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. This article was originally published by the Center for American Progress. 

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FERC Takes a Step Backward on Environmental Impacts

A 3-2 majority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) unveiled a new policy last Friday that limits FERC’s analysis and disclosure of the environmental impacts of natural gas pipeline projects. The decision is a step backward for FERC, right when it is soliciting public comment on how to improve its pipeline project reviews.

FERC, which oversees the siting and approval of interstate natural gas pipelines, stated that it will no longer discuss upstream and downstream environmental impacts that it claims fall outside of its review requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This included a declaration that FERC will no longer prepare upper-bound greenhouse gas emissions estimates for a proposed project when it asserts that those emissions fall outside of its NEPA requirements.

This is wrong for at least two reasons. First, as Commissioners Cheryl LaFleur and Richard Glick noted in dissent, FERC’s policy is circular, in that FERC often does not undergo the proper fact-finding and analysis to determine whether an environmental impact must be considered under NEPA in the first place. Second, FERC’s duties to consider environmental impacts extend beyond NEPA. If FERC ignores these environmental impacts, FERC also will be ignoring information that is essential to deciding whether the project is in the public interest—FERC’s mandate under the Natural Gas Act (NGA).

How FERC unveiled the new policy is also unsettling. FERC buried the announcement within an order upholding its approval of the under-the-radar Dominion New Market Project in New York. This is the second time in less than two months that FERC has buried a significant new policy within an otherwise routine order. Announcing such policies in this fashion undermines public trust in FERC and Chairman Kevin McIntyre’s claim that he views improving FERC’s transparency as a top priority. McIntyre joined Commissioners Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson in approving the policy.
Upstream, downstream, direct, indirect, and cumulative effects
To understand what FERC did, it’s important to understand the terminology. The energy world describes natural gas like a river. Production is upstream, transmission is midstream, and end-use is downstream. The emissions that are created through gas extraction are upstream effects because they happen before the gas is transported to the market. Emissions created through burning gas at power plants are downstream effects because they happen after the gas is transported. FERC generally regulates the midstream infrastructure that transports gas from production facilities to end-users.

Under NEPA, FERC is required to consider the direct and indirect effects and cumulative impacts of a proposed action, such as authorizing a new gas pipeline. Direct effects are effects directly caused by the action and occur simultaneously. Indirect effects are caused by the action and are reasonably foreseeable at the time of the action, but may occur later. Cumulative impacts are the impacts that result from the incremental impact of the proposed action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future actions, be they federal, state, or private.

NEPA analysis is crucial because it not only requires agencies to review the costs and benefits of the project and its alternatives, but also requires them to disclose this information to the public. The public can then comment, which further assists FERC with its project reviews.

FERC historically resisted calls to include upstream and downstream environmental effects into its NEPA analyses, arguing they are not indirect or cumulative effects because they are not caused by FERC’s action and/or are not reasonably foreseeable. For example, since FERC does not decide whether to authorize the facilities that will use the gas, such as power plants—those decisions are left to the states—FERC has argued that its pipeline approvals do not cause the emissions. FERC also has argued that downstream greenhouse gas effects are not reasonably foreseeable, stating it is impossible to determine the gas’s end-users or how they will consume the gas.

Last year, the D.C. Circuit told FERC that, at least when the end-user is known, FERC must consider downstream greenhouse gas emissions under NEPA. Since then, FERC has included more information about upstream and downstream environmental impacts in its orders, even when it maintains that these effects do not qualify under NEPA. Further, on April 19, 2018, FERC opened a new proceeding requesting comments on how FERC can improve its pipeline review process and devoted an entire section to its treatment of environmental effects. These actions signified some recognition that environmental impacts are relevant not only to NEPA, but also to FERC’s public interest analysis under the NGA.
The new policy undermines that progress
In Friday’s order, FERC declared that it will no longer disclose or consider any environmental impacts outside of NEPA.

In dissent, LaFleur noted that the majority is “essentially arguing that we are not obligated to consider upstream and downstream impacts because there is a lack of causation and reasonable foreseeability,” while ignoring that “a key reason [why] the Commission lacks the specificity of information to determine causation and reasonable foreseeability is because we have not asked applicants to provide this sort of detail in their pipeline applications.”

Further, LaFleur stated that “NEPA does not circumscribe the public interest standard” under the NGA. She’s right. It is baffling how FERC can meet its obligation to consider the public interest without analyzing all environmental impacts.

Glick also challenged the majority’s contention that it did not need to consider “consequences beyond those of greatest concern to the public and greatest relevance to the agency’s decision,” questioning how climate change would not qualify under this standard.
We’re not looking for perfection
For FERC to ignore environmental impacts it determines to be too attenuated—a determination based on its own weak analysis—is short-sighted and misguided.

As Glick stated, there may be instances where, despite FERC’s best efforts, “it will not have sufficient information to assess the consequences that issuing a particular certificate may have for climate change.” But “it is the fact that the Commission made every effort” to identify the impacts that satisfies FERC’s statutory obligations.

Glick is right. FERC must make these efforts.

 
Gillian Giannetti is an Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Her advocacy work focuses on regulatory issues at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, particularly when applied to natural gas infrastructure projects.
 

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Trump proposal to weaken project reviews threatens the ‘Magna Carta of environmental law’

Building the U.S. Interstate highway system in the 1950s and 60s is often cited as one of government’s great achievements. But it had harmful impacts too. Many city communities were bulldozed to make space for freeways. Across the nation, people vigorously objected to having no say in these decisions, leading to “freeway revolts.”

This outcry, coupled with the growing environmental movement, gave rise to the idea – revolutionary at the time – that agencies should take a hard look at the environmental impacts of their actions, consider reasonable alternatives and allow community input. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), enacted in 1970, codified these principles and allowed citizens to sue if they believed government had not complied. Because it represents a turning point in thinking about environmental protection, NEPA has been called the “Magna Carta of environmental law.”

Despite NEPA’s demonstrated successes, critics have attacked it for years, usually based on anecdotes claiming that lengthy environmental reviews caused project delays. President Donald Trump’s infrastructure initiative is the latest example. And on May 3, 2018, the Trump administration announced that it will soon propose changes to the rules that guide federal agencies carrying out NEPA reviews.

As attorneys who held senior positions at the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, including managing the agency’s NEPA office, we have extensive experience with NEPA reviews. Expert studies reveal a vast disconnect between the evidence, which shows that NEPA is not the cause of project delays, and the sweeping changes that NEPA critics are proposing. This disconnect reveals that current proposals aren’t really about speeding up projects, but are instead part of a broad deregulatory agenda that prioritizes business interests over public benefits from environmental protection.

Poster opposing a planned freeway in Washington, D.C., that was ultimately canceled in 1977. Greater Greater Washington, CC BY
NEPA reviews aren’t the cause of project delays
Over more than four decades, NEPA has helped government agencies make smarter choices about public infrastructure, reducing damage to both natural environments and communities and avoiding the costs of correcting ill-considered projects.

For example, in the 1990s Michigan’s state transportation agency wanted to build a four-lane highway across a huge swath of important wetlands. Using NEPA, citizens forced the state to consider alternatives. Ultimately the state decided to expand an existing highway instead, dramatically reducing environmental harm and saving US$1.5 billion. Similar stories have occurred across the country.

Critics have long used “NEPA is slowing projects down!” as their rallying cry. Independent experts have looked at the evidence and reached a different conclusion.

The most authoritative independent studies were done by the Government Accounting Office in 2014 and the Congressional Research Service in 2011 and 2012. They found that the vast majority of projects have very streamlined reviews.

About 95 percent of all projects subject to NEPA go through a very short process called a “categorical exclusion” that usually takes from a few days to a few months. Another 4 percent have a short and straightforward review, called an “environmental assessment,” that usually takes between four and 18 months. Less than 1 percent of projects are subject to a full review, which is called an “environmental impact statement.”

Typically, these are large-scale initiatives such as a new highway, a major dredging project or a multistate pipeline. You wouldn’t know it from rhetoric in Washington, but the sweeping changes being proposed to NEPA are focused on less than 1 percent of projects.

These independent investigations also found that NEPA reviews are not the reason that the biggest projects take time. State and local issues, such as funding shortfalls, changing priorities and local controversy, are the most significant influence on whether a project moves forward quickly or takes longer than anticipated. Of course, there are examples where environmental reviews took too long, but in many cases these reviews started and stopped for reasons unrelated to environmental issues.
Not about efficiency
In fact, by requiring agencies to consider alternatives to their envisioned projects, environmental reviews can speed things up by identifying better options and solving problems that could be costly or cause delays in the long run – a common issue in highway construction, for example. As our shop teachers advised, “Measure twice, cut once.” This is one reason why federal agencies that use NEPA most, including the Department of Transportation, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Energy, have long voiced support for it.

Enshrining unsupported policy in statutes passed by Congress makes those choices much harder to fix. Here’s what the president wants to do that would require changing the law:

– Take environmental agencies out of NEPA reviews. Congress recognized that some federal agencies are focused on building things, like highways or energy projects, and that protecting the environment is not their mission or area of expertise. That’s why it gave EPA a central role in NEPA studies by other agencies.

EPA involvement has helped reduce adverse environmental impacts through early up front coordination, without adding time. The agency routinely produces its comments within 30 days. The Trump infrastructure plan proposes to eliminate EPA’s review role.

– Cut a huge hole in consideration of alternatives. The Trump proposal would insert waffle words, like provisions limiting alternatives to those that the applicant finds “economically feasible” or are within the applicant’s “capability,” into NEPA’s requirement for agencies to consider reasonable alternatives. This approach allows applicants to avoid considering options they don’t like.

Consideration of alternatives is the heart of NEPA. Thinking hard about how projects can be done with less environmental damage – for example, by reusing an already developed site instead of paving over open space – improves designs, saves money and builds public support.

– Set the stage for getting rid of NEPA completely. In case anyone misses the point, the Trump plan allows some projects to bypass all environmental reviews on a “pilot” basis. A recent report by the conservative Heritage Foundation follows the same playbook by calling for repeal of NEPA.

Pete Brunner of Falmouth, Maine, casts for Atlantic salmon on the Penobscot River in 2006. A NEPA review led to denial in 1997 of a permit for a major hydropower plant on the Penobscot after the study showed that it would harm salmon. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File
Change NEPA practice, not the law
Over the last 45 years federal agencies have improved their processes for carrying out NEPA reviews, through steps such as providing more up front consultation. The Obama administration was continuing that effort with a number of consensus efficiency improvements that show promise for speeding things up without undercutting NEPA’s important goals.

By requiring government agencies to think before they act, NEPA has avoided countless harmful and ill-considered ideas. As the secretary of energy said in 1992, after halting a project that would have cost billions, “[T]hank God for NEPA because there were so many pressures to make a selection for a technology that might have been forced upon us and that would have been wrong for the country.”

Federal agencies should keep finding ways to implement NEPA more efficiently. What the federal government shouldn’t do is make enormous statutory changes based on incorrect claims about a fraction of 1 percent of projects – or disregard the lesson of the last 45 years that the most efficient choice is to build things right the first time.
About the authors: Janet McCabe served as Deputy Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) from 2009 to 2013, and as Acting Assistant Administrator for OAR from 2013-2017. She is a senior law fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center and a member of Duke Energy’s Indiana Citizens Advisory Board. Cynthia Giles served as Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance from 2009 to 2017. She is currently the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Executive Fellow at the Energy & Environment Lab at the University of Chicago.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. To read the original article, please click here.

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What Happens When NEPA Is Ignored: The Oroville Dam

The Oroville Dam Case Study is a good example of the harm that can be caused when courts, agencies and developers fail to take the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) seriously.
A Short Background on the Historic Roots of NEPA
Passed into law with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress and signed by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act is often characterized as an environmental impact review law, and it is that—but it is much more than that. It is a law that has made informed decision-making about the environment a key component of every major federal action.

Although the passage of NEPA is often directly attributed to the devastating 1969 Santa Barbara blowout and oil spill, that overly simplistic explanation obscures the law’s far more democratic roots. Its passage was also prompted in reaction to the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and 1960s, a process that ripped apart many inner cities and turned existing racial borders into concrete with little regard for those who lived there.

NEPA brought a new level of transparency and accountability to government decision-making. No longer was the federal government allowed to say “we know best” and simply pave over entire communities.

An essential part of this process is NEPA’s mandated public comment period. Before a project is started and throughout its development, the federal government must ask the public—including local communities—to voice concerns. They must also ask for local expertise regarding the project. This is arguably the most important pillar of NEPA; it draws on our democratic values to ensure that projects are undertaken with the benefit of our communities in mind.
California’s Oroville Dam
Nowhere is the importance of ensuring public participation in government decision-making better illustrated than California’s Oroville Dam. Built in the 1960s, the Oroville Dam is the tallest dam in the United States at a height of 230 meters (750 feet).

Located 75 miles north of Sacramento, the dam holds back a reservoir containing 1.1 trillion gallons of water, supplying farms and cities across the state.

After enduring five years of brutal drought, California went from one extreme to the other—from too little water to too much water. By February 2017, the Oroville Reservoir was operating at 151 percent of normal capacity and still rising.

In order to prevent the dam from overflowing, operators were forced to release the excess water through a process of controlled discharges through the spillway.

There was only one problem. On February 7th, the dam’s main spillway cracked in two, prompting a temporary shutdown of the structure just as another major rainstorm rolled through Northern California. Lake Oroville filled so high that water flowed over the emergency spillway for the first time ever. After another major release of water on February 12th, dam engineers discovered that the spillway’s condition had worsened—erosion on the hillside was compromising the integrity of the entire spillway.

As water began pouring over the top of the “emergency” spillway, a new an even more worrisome dilemma presented itself. The 30-foot-high concrete barrier at the top of emergency spillway was in danger of failure.

Some 180,000 residents were forced to evacuate, faced with the prospect of 30-foot high wall of water headed their way that would flood dozens of towns downstream. It would have been the worst environmental disaster in the history of Northern California.

Disaster was ultimately averted when dam engineers decided the damaged main spillway was still capable of handling larger water releases.

Although residents were eventually told they could return home on February 13th, the evacuation had real consequences. Forced to close their doors for days at a time, small businesses were particularly hard hit. Miner’s Alley—a local Oroville bar—estimated it lost close to $10,000.

The almost-disaster could have been avoided altogether if state and federal officials had heeded the warnings of environmental groups over a decade ago.

In accordance with the Federal Power Act, hydropower projects that are not owned by the federal government undergo relicensing of their facilities every 30 to 50 years, a process that requires completion of a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). First licensed back in 1957, the Oroville dam began this relicensing process in December 2000 at the request of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

In 2003, three environmental groups—Friends of the River, the South Yuba Citizens League, and the Sierra Club—filed a motion with the federal government to make FERC’s renewal of the operating license conditional on lining and reinforcing the dam’s emergency spillway.

“At present, the ungated spillway at Oroville Dam consists of a spillway lip only—and utilizes a hillside as the project spillway,” the groups wrote in 2003 to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). “Utilizing such a spillway has the potential to cause severe damage to the downstream hillside, project facilities and downstream environments located in the path of the flood release.”

The Yuba County Water Agency—which owns transmission lines and other infrastructure in the area—also noted serious concerns in a 2002 memo. “The discharge area below the emergency spillway is not armored, and extensive erosion would take place if the emergency spillway were used,” the memo stated. “The spillway road and possibly high voltage transmission towers would be impacted.”

Unfortunately, the motion to intervene was dismissed and the environmental groups’ comments to FERC’s draft EIS were brushed off by both state and federal agencies. An independent report published in January 2018 suggested that the concerns of environmentalists in 2005 were shaken off in part because the agency was concerned about the costs the improvements would incur.

The city of Oroville filed a lawsuit in January 2018 alleging that the crisis at the dam was the result of “decades of mismanagement and intentional lack of maintenance” by the Department of Water Resources and said the agency “buried its head in the sand” after being made aware of problems in the early 2000s.
Ensuring citizen’s access to the courts
As climate change makes extreme weather events like hurricanes more frequent, isolated incidents like the one that occurred at Oroville dam in 2017—made possible by a “perfect storm” of prolonged drought followed by a period of heavy rain—are likely to occur with increasing frequency across the county. In the case of the Oroville dam, disaster was ultimately averted. The next community downstream, however, may not be as lucky.

Over the past four years in Congress, 150 pieces of legislation have been introduced seeking to undermine, weaken, or waive NEPA. Current legislative proposals in Congress, made bolder by the election of Donald Trump, are even more alarming. If passed, the government would be able to rubber stamp permits for corporations to build oil pipelines and toxic waste dumps without any environmental review.

If President Trump and opponents in Congress are successful in their war on NEPA, the ability of local citizens groups like the South Yuba Citizens League and Friends of the River to take the federal government to court and hold federal agencies accountable for dangerous or rushed projects would be severely restricted.

This campaign to eliminate NEPA is based on the demonstrably false claims that NEPA is both a major cause of project delay and a tool for frivolous litigation.

The facts tell a different story. The federal government undertakes 50,000 actions every year subject to NEPA review, but only 200 draft EISs are prepared annually. A Federal Highway Administration study found that from 1998 to 2004, no more than 3.5% percent of all proposed transportation projects required a detailed environmental study. 

The volume of litigation under NEPA is also low: fewer than 100 NEPA cases are filed in district court annually, about half of which involve challenges to EISs.

Bulldozing public input and citizen’s access to the courts under NEPA will not speed up infrastructure projects. As the Oroville dam demonstrates, gutting NEPA will only result in construction of major infrastructure projects like bridges and dams without full consideration of the long-term impacts on people and ecological environments.

Any law that provides broad opportunities for public participation in government decisions that affect the environment and local communities shouldn’t be rolled back, it should be embraced. Rather than weakening NEPA—a law that is essential to ensuring government transparency and accountability—Congress should provide additional funding for full-time technical staff at the state and federal levels to ensure timely completion of environmental review.

 
[1] “Engineers have known for decades that Oroville’s backup spillway was unreliable.” Sacramento Bee, 2/13/2017. Available at:

[2] “Motion to Intervene of Friend of the River, Sierra Club, and South Yuba River Citizens League.” Available at:
http://www.friendsoftheriver.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/FOR-Sierra-Club-SYRCL-comments-Oroville-relicenisng-EIR-text-recoghighlighted.pdf
[3] “Authorities were warned that the Oroville Dam was at risk of collapse 16 years ago.” Quartz. 2/14/17. Available at:

Authorities were warned that the Oroville Dam was at risk of collapse 16 years ago


[4] “Comments on the Notice of Preparation, Yuba River Flood Protection Program.” Friends of the River. 9/23/2001. Available at:
https://www.scribd.com/document/339250063/Comments-on-the-Notice-of-Preparation-Yuba-River-Flood-Protection-Program#from_embed
[5] “Independent Forensic Team Report: Oroville Dam Spillway Incident.” 1/5/2018. Available at:
https://damsafety.org/sites/default/files/files/Independent%20Forensic%20Team%20Report%20Final%2001-05-18.pdf
[6] “The Oroville Dam 2017 Spillway Incident and Lessons from the Feather River Basin.” September 2017. Available at:
http://yubariver.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Oroville_Lessons_2017_report_web.pdf
[7] “Draft Environmental Impact Statement for relicensing of the Oroville Facilities Project No. 2100.” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). September 29, 2016. Available at:
https://www.ferc.gov/industries/hydropower/enviro/eis/2006/09-29-06.asp
 

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Preserving Local Voices in Broadband Deployment

I’m not a telecommunications lawyer and don’t usually follow what’s happening at the Federal Communications Commission, but this week I am. At its March 22 meeting, the Commission is set to vote on rule changes that would remove the deployment of small wireless facilities from public participation and environmental review currently in place. NRDC opposes the changes.
What the FCC’s Order Does

The FCC published its Wireless Streamlining Report and Order on March 1, 2018. The Commission will vote on whether to approve the order on March 22.
The Order makes two changes to the FCC’s rules implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). First, the Order excludes facilities placed in a floodplain as long as they are placed at least one foot above the base flood elevation from NEPA review. Previously, any facility located in a floodplain required at least an Environmental Assessment (EA) under NEPA. Second, the Order changes the rule requiring an EA to exclude: (1) the construction of mobile stations; and (2) small wireless facilities meeting certain criteria.
The Order also excludes the deployment of wireless communication facilities from the definition of “undertaking” under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Section 106 of the NHPA requires that “the head of any Federal department or independent agency” shall take into account the effect of any proposed undertaking on historic properties.

Why the FCC’s Order Is a Bad Idea
1. We can rapidly deploy broadband technology without shutting local voices out. The radio spectrum provides for numerous types of wireless communication. The FCC licenses this spectrum for various uses. Currently, a voracious demand for wireless access to the internet (aka “broadband”) dominates such uses. 

The next generation of wireless technology—5G—offers faster data speeds and more reliable service. Rather than large, widely-spaced towers, the new 5G technology requires distributed antenna services and small cell facilities sited much more closely together. 

While the smaller size of these facilities may limit their impacts on a community’s historic, cultural and natural resources, the dramatic increase in their numbers mean more sites will be affected and cumulative impacts could be significant. Involving local elected officials and community members in the planning decisions will help ensure wiser and less controversial decisions.

2. The FCC’s Order discourages collaboration. Numerous stakeholders worked diligently over many months and years to develop a system of review that preserves local voices while allowing rapid deployment of broadband facilities. Like NEPA, the NHPA provides for limited review where impacts are limited.  The FCC has developed Programmatic Agreements with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and others to provide for streamlined review of impacts on historic and cultural resources. The FCC tosses these collaborative efforts aside.  As a result, diverse stakeholders oppose the Order including: the National Congress of American Indians and the National League of Cities, as well as individual tribes and cities across the country.

3. The FCC’s Order is unlawful. The plain language of both NEPA and the NHPA applies these laws to the FCC licensing at issue here. Courts have consistently treated licensing as both a “major federal action” under NEPA and an “undertaking” under the NHPA. The Commission can adjust the amount of review based on the minimal impacts of a licensed activity, but it cannot avoid review all together.

While Congress has encouraged the rapid deployment of wireless technology, it has mandated that it be done in a way that protects the environment as well as historic and cultural resources. NRDC supports the rapid deployment of wireless technology especially to remote communities which currently lack service. Future progress, however, does not require that we forget our past or sacrifice a healthy, vibrant and secure environment.

Sharon Buccino is NRDC’s Land and Wildlife Program Director. Prior to joining NRDC, she practiced environmental and administrative law with a private firm in Washington, D.C. and worked for the Alaska Supreme Court.

 

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Trump’s Infrastructure Scam Will Gut Environmental Protections To Benefit Corporate Polluters

In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump is expected to announce a long-awaited plan to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure and call on the U.S. Congress to work with his administration on related legislation. Leaked versions of the infrastructure proposal, however, show that this is not a plan to put Americans to work rebuilding crumbling infrastructure. Instead, it’s a full-scale gutting of environmental protections to benefit corporate polluters and steamroll American communities.

As detailed in the leaked proposal, the Trump administration’s plan would require fundamental changes to no fewer than 10 bedrock environmental laws that protect the nation’s clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks. The plan would hollow out the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the law that requires federal project sponsors to consult with stakeholders who would be affected by new projects and identify ways to reduce their impact on the environment, public health, and cultural resources. The Endangered Species Act is also in the crosshairs, as several provisions would prioritize new development over the protection of wildlife that is on the brink of extinction. The Trump administration proposes significant changes to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to make it easier for corporations to break ground and avoid inconvenient air and water quality protections. The proposal even includes some mystifying provisions, such as one to give Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke unilateral authority to site natural gas pipelines in national parks.

The Trump administration will attempt to brand these environmental attacks as an effort to improve the infrastructure permitting process. In actuality, they are attempting to steamroll hardworking Americans by silencing or disregarding communities’ voices in determining where pipelines, highways, and other large projects should be built. Example after example shows the foolishness of that approach for the environment and public health. One only needs to look at certain communities that were built 50 years ago—before NEPA and other environmental laws existed—to see the detrimental impacts of this type of decision-making. In a particularly stark example, a low-income community in Orlando, Florida, continues to suffer the consequences of short-sighted transportation policy decisions that left the neighborhood surrounded by highways, isolated from the rest of the city, and trapped in a haze of air pollution.

While the Trump administration is proposing measures to sell out our air, water, and national parks to corporate polluters, it is ignoring tangible steps that it could take without gutting environmental protections. An important first step would be to implement laws already on the books. In 2012 and 2015 respectively, Congress enacted two pieces of legislation—the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) and Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act—that contain provisions aimed at expediting the permitting process that are not fully implemented, such as measures to reduce duplication; track the progress of project delivery; integrate mapping and other data tools with fiscal management systems; and facilitate efforts to align historic preservation regulations. Congress also created the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council to manage the permitting process for certain complex projects.

Implementing new laws takes time, and layering new provisions only makes it harder. In March 2017, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) inspector general found that DOT delayed implementing a significant number of MAP-21’s reforms because they had to stop midstream and comply with additional provisions mandated in the FAST Act. Rather than understanding and deploying the tools it already has, the Trump administration has jumped to the nuclear option—radical environmental rollbacks that grease the process for corporations at the expense of air and water quality and wildlife.

The best way for the Trump administration to speed up permitting without sacrificing environmental protection is to adequately fund the relevant federal agencies involved in the permitting and environmental review process. Without funding, the federal agencies cannot hire and train staff to complete environmental reviews or invest in technology that provides efficiencies. In DOT’s “how-to” guide for environmental reviews, the agency notes that limited budgets and staff resources preclude many regulatory and resource agencies from assigning staff to work on reviews when they may already be strained to process pending workload in a timely manner. Instead of funding these professionals to provide the best information to make informed decisions, the Trump administration has proposed slashing agency budgets and undertaken the greatest assault that has ever been seen in the history of this country on these agencies that protect clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks.

With such a public record of promoting the interests of corporate polluters over communities and the environment, no one should be fooled by Trump’s infrastructure scam. It is little more than a Trojan horse designed to gut the environmental protections that are necessary for the clean air, clean water, wildlife, and national parks that truly make America great.

Christy Goldfuss is the senior vice president for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress. Alison Cassady is the managing director for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center

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