This week, the Trump administration initiated a process to open up the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to potentially serious revisions. If the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan or countless other rollbacks to bedrock laws protecting our environment and public health are anything to go by, that’s bad news for the “Magna Carta” of environmental laws. Really bad news.
On June 20, 2018, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) officially announced the Trump administration’s plans to re-examine CEQ’s longstanding NEPA regulations. CEQ’s NEPA regulations ensure that the public is given the opportunity to participate in decisions that impact their lives and that government agencies take a hard look at the environmental, public health, and economic impacts of proposed actions as a basis for making informed, science-based decisions.
Make no mistake. This one of the most severe attacks on our environment, public health, and right to public participation we have yet to see from the Trump administration.
Although attacks on the environment and the NEPA process are by no means new – rollbacks are occurring across every federal agency – the scope of these potential rollbacks are without precedent. CEQ’s NEPA regulations provide the foundation for what is often the only way that the environmental, public health, and economic impacts of federal decisions are disclosed and the only opportunity for the public to meaningfully comment on such decisions.
These proposed rollbacks are not only unprecedented, they are completely unnecessary. As CEQ itself has acknowledged in its own recent guidance, the regulations already provide ample flexibility and a wide array of tools to meet the goal of high quality, efficient, and timely reviews. The strength and flexibility of NEPA and its implementing regulations are one of the reasons it is the United States most widely imitated law, with over 160 other countries adopting laws modeled after NEPA. Once again, the Trump administration is proposing to retreat from policies where the U.S. was once a leader.
Further, this process, which could affect every person in America on a level that eclipses even tax reform, is being launched with a long list of technical questions to be answered by “experts” within an outrageously short comment period of 60 days. Ironically, the regulations CEQ is seeking to revise repeatedly stress the importance of issuing materials in “plain language” so that the general public can understand and respond to decisions impacting their communities, but the notice requires a specialist to comprehend.
This is no way to have a thoughtful dialogue with the American public about America’s environmental Magna Carta. NEPA is one of the most far-reaching law ever passed, and the proposed rulemaking would affect every major federal action the government takes, from oil and gas development decisions on our public lands and waters, to the construction of industrial facilities and major transportation infrastructure that release vast quantities of climate, air, and water pollution.
Potential rollbacks to NEPA include:
- Restrictions on public input: The right of citizens to meaningfully weigh in on federal decisions impacting their communities is the most important guarantee of the current CEQ regulations. This notice strongly suggests CEQ intends to limit the public’s ability to participate in federal decision-making.
- Narrowing the scope of NEPA review and limiting consideration of project alternatives: The consideration of project alternatives is often called “the heart of the environmental impact statement.” Consideration of a range of project alternatives often results in the identification of easily implemented mitigation measures and saves taxpayer money and makes a project more likely to be approved. This notice contemplates changing this requirement.
- Inappropriate categorical exclusions and waivers on environmental review: When used correctly, Categorical Exclusions (CEs) can streamline the approval of actions that a federal agency has researched and demonstrated do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment. When used inappropriately, CEs can be used to steamroll public concerns and capitulate to corporate interests that elevate their profits over the public interest.
- Imposition of hard deadlines for project approval: Establishing hard deadlines for project approval regardless of project size, complexity, and impact or the degree of public controversy over a proposal.
- Furthering the Trump administration’s denial of climate science and “energy dominance” policy: NEPA provides an adaptative framework empowering federal agencies to address the climate impacts of their actions. The Trump administration, however, has aggressively undermined climate action. CEQ’s notice indicates that it will weaken science-based analytical requirements to obscure climate impacts as a means of extending the life of antiquated fossil fuel infrastructure and boosting fossil fuels development on our public lands and waters.
- Potential Conflicts of Interest: Applicants could be allowed to prepare their own environmental impact statements, thus eliminating objective analyses about the environmental and related social and economic effects of their proposal.
Background: What is the National Environmental Policy Act (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 (NEPA) is a critical law that empowers local communities to protect themselves and their environment from dangerous, rushed, or poorly planned federal projects. We teach our children to “look before you leap” – NEPA simply and sensibly requires our government to do the same.
At the heart of this review process are a series of broad opportunities for members of the public to participate in government decisions that affect their environment and communities.
NEPA success stories are as numerous as they are varied – from the construction of the 3.5-mile Hoover Dam Bypass and the redevelopment of the country’s largest Brownfield site in Atlanta to the continued preservation of Giant Sequoia National Monument and El Yunque National Forest – thanks to this law, hundreds of millions of Americans have participated in important federal decisions.
Protect Your Voice!
Citizens only have 60 days to submit a comment urging the Trump administration to protect NEPA. Here is a sample comment you can submit on your own behalf – feel free to personalize your message and tell your story!
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a critical law that has empowered local communities to protect themselves and their environment from dangerous, rushed, and poorly planned federal projects for over 45 years.
We teach our children to “look before you leap.” The NEPA process simply and sensibly requires our government to do the same by identifying any significant impacts a project may have on our health, environment, and livelihood before construction begins.
NEPA and its implementing procedures provide a strong foundation for informed, science-based decision-making and already provide ample flexibility.
As such, I am strongly opposed to any changes that would in any way restrict public input, limit consideration of project alternatives, establish hard deadlines for project approval, or narrow or eliminate federal agencies’ obligations to consider a project’s climate impacts.
If you or your organization would like to get involved, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Protect NEPA campaign works with a coalition of over twenty of the country’s largest environmental, labor, and civil rights advocacy groups – including Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, and League of Conservation Voters – to advance and defend NEPA across a broad range of key issue areas.