Comments Needed: Stop the Gutting of the National Environmental Policy Act

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8 mins read
Photo by WestBoundary Photography chris gill on Unsplash

I have discovered that I care quite a bit about a 50-year-old law that I had never heard of until about three weeks ago. 

I refer to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which, believe it or not, passed in Congress with broad bipartisan support and was signed by Richard Nixon — back when the notion of protecting air, water or entire ecosystems wasn’t even controversial.

But, now, we have a troglodyte in the White House, and his knives are out and aimed at gutting protections provided by this law. We can push back with comments, due by midnight March 10.

Background

This legislation created a national environment policy that applies to all major energy and infrastructure projects receiving federal funding or requiring federal approval. NEPA also created the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), charged with implementing the law.

Three elements of the law are key here:

  • Environmental reviews: NEPA policy requires major projects that will have a significant impact on the environment, such as bridges, highways, pipelines or power plants, to undergo environmental reviews. Repeating myself, again, this refers to such projects if they receive federal funding or require federal approval.
  • Public participation: For these projects, NEPA also requires hearings and comment options so communities can protect themselves from dangerous, rushed or poorly planned projects and/or offer alternative ideas that better protect the environment and public health.
  • Climate change: NEPA requires all federal agencies, when reviewing a project for possible environmental repercussions, to consider the “cumulative consequences” of the project. Courts have interpreted “cumulative consequences” to mean the effects of allowing more planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It also has meant assessing the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, on the projects themselves.

Around 160 countries have used NEPA as a model for laws of their own, seeking to emulate a process that has worked pretty well for us.

But, Trump and his minions love to break things that work. The Council on Environmental Quality proposes to do the following:

  • Narrow the range of projects that require environmental review and, as a corollary, reduce the occasions when the public can participate. As a result, the proposed rule would set the stage for some major projects to whip through the approval process without having to reveal plans to do things like discharge waste, cut trees or increase air pollution.
  • Relax language meant to prevent conflicts of interest such that, in instances where environmental reviews continue to be required, contractors with financial interests in projects would be able to prepare their own assessments. This is just astonishing. Furthermore, the CEQ would impose strict deadlines for completing environmental assessments, making it even more likely that the resulting reports will be unreliable.
  • Eliminate the need to consider the “cumulative consequences” of any project. In other words, federal agencies would no longer have to consider whether, for example, a pipeline, mine or other fossil fuel project would worsen climate change when, in fact, so many of them would. They also would no longer have to assess how or whether a road or bridge in a coastal area may be threatened by sea-level rise. All as if climate change were not a thing.

The administration contends it is merely streamlining approval processes while Trump moans that it takes “20 years… 30 years … numbers that nobody would even believe” to complete an environmental review. 

In fact, the average review time for the biggest projects is four and a half years, and the major reason for project delays is lack of funding.

Furthermore, according to the CEQ itself, nearly 95% of the more than 50,000 federal projects that are subject to environmental review annually are deemed so low a risk to the environment that they can proceed with a minimal review. On the other hand, less than 1% (less than 500) of these projects are considered risky enough to merit a full-blown review.

This effort to gut NEPA is one more in a long series of plans birthed by the Trump government that will exacerbate the challenges posed by global warming. This plan, in my opinion, also is another in a long series of Trump giveaways to corporate America, especially polluters — the general public be damned. 

Comment period

A 60-day comment period ends March 10. I have filed my objections, and if you wish to do the same, go to here.

Please share with any friends who might also suddenly care about a law no one much discusses. 

Congress

The most important action right now is meeting the March 10 comment deadline, but you may consider a second step — asking your representatives to get into this fray in any way that could be helpful. I have read that some Democrats are talking about possible legislative action but am not aware that anything is pending at the moment.

Sample postcard-sized letters, which could be addressed to any member of the House or Senate, are below. Copy, adapt, rewrite or use as you see fit for snail-mail letters, e-mails, faxes, phone calls, whatever suits your style.

Sample letters

Dear legislator:

Donald Trump proposes changes to the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act, and his proposals are egregious. His plan would allow some portion of major energy and infrastructure projects to move toward approval without exploring environmental consequences and without allowing the public a say in the matter. The plan also drops a requirement to look at climate change for any project, essentially denying reality. These changes would exacerbate our global climate crisis and put our health at risk, all this in order to cater to polluters. Please take immediate action to block these new rules.

Dear legislator: 

Donald Trump is proposing sweeping changes to the National Environmental Policy Act’s (NEPA) implementing regulations, the rules that apply to things like energy development on public lands and waters, construction of industrial facilities, and the launch of major transportation infrastructure. These projects can add hugely to air and water pollution. 

But, I am especially alarmed that Trump is effectively looking to enshrine climate denial by ending the consideration of climate change in environmental reviews.

These proposals are unacceptable.

I urge you to protect NEPA in every way you can — and to demand an extension of the 60-day comment period.


DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.


Born and raised in Iowa. Earned journalism degree at University of Iowa and masters degree at Teachers College Columbia University. Spent career as investigative reporter and editor, mostly with travel trade publications. Now retired, but writing on a freelance basis.

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