Administration launches major attack on core environmental safeguard

The Trump administration took the first steps in the administrative process to undermine one of the nation’s most important environmental laws – the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

On June 19, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) submitted an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, officially signaling the Trump administration’s plans to re-examine, and potentially re-write, NEPA regulations. CEQ oversees and implements NEPA regulations, which have long ensured that environmental, public health, and economic impacts of federal decisions are disclosed to the public and that less damaging alternative solutions are fully investigated. NEPA also requires that the public and local decisionmakers have an opportunity to meaningfully comment on decisions that affect their communites.

NEPA is our nation’s bedrock environmental law, but it is also fundamentally a law about transparency,” said SELC attorney Kym Hunter.  “For almost fifty years, NEPA has ensured that major decisions affecting the environment are not made behind closed-doors, but that all impacts are fully disclosed to the public, and that alternative solutions carefully examined. The Trump administration wants to take us back to a time where corporate polluters call the shots, communities are paved over without any input, and federal money is spent willy-nilly without any real plan or foresight.”

The importance and success of NEPA are evident in myriad stories from the Southeast alone – from the improvement of timber sales in Tennesseee and the banning of fracking in the George Washington National Forest to the shelving of the costly and unneeded Garden Parkway in North Carolina and better solutions to traffic woes on Route 29 in Charlottesville – thanks to this law, hundreds of millions of Americans have participated in important federal decisions.

While attacks on the NEPA process are by no means new – rollbacks are occurring across every federal agency – the scope of these proposed rollbacks is without precedent.

NEPA is one of the most far-reaching laws ever passed, and the proposed rulemaking would affect every major federal action the government takes. These regulations apply to every federal agency, thus dictating how environmental impacts are disclosed and the public is engaged on decisions, including the construction of highways, the permitting of pipelines, the management of public lands and waters, and the consideration of climate change

Some of the most alarming suggestions in the draft could have serious impact including,

  1. Severe restrictions on public input. This notice indicates CEQ is considering limiting the public’s ability to participate in decisions by potentially limiting the scope of NEPA reviews and the impacts considered. The ability of citizens to meaningfully weigh in on federal decisions impacting their communities is the most important guarantee of the current NEPA regulations.
  2. Narrowing the scope of NEPA review and limiting consideration of project alternatives. CEQ identifies the consideration of project alternatives as “the heart of the environmental impact statement.” Consideration of project alternatives during the NEPA process often results in the identification of easily implemented mitigation measures, saving taxpayer money, and makes project approval more likely. This notice contemplates changing this requirement.
  3. Imposition of hard deadlines for project approval. Establishing hard deadlines for project approval regardless of project size, complexity, impact, or the degree of public controversy over a proposal.
  4. Inappropriate categorical exclusions and waivers for environmental reviews. When utilized correctly, Categorical Exclusions (CEs) are designed to reduce review for categories of actions a federal agency has researched and demonstrated do not individually or cumulatively have a significant affect on the quality of the human environment.

A 30-day comment period on these proposed changes is now open. You can let CEQ know your thoughts on their draft proposal at this website. The comment deadline is July 20.

What is NEPA?

Passed into law with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress and signed by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, NEPA is a critical law that empowers local communities to protect themselves and their environment from dangerous, rushed, or poorly planned federal projects.  

At its base, NEPA is quite simple. The law requires that, when the federal government pursues a major action, it must take a careful look at the environmental impacts of the action, and it must look to see what alternative, less damaging actions may be available. The law then requires the government to make their findings about impacts and alternatives available to the public, local decisionmakers, and environmental resource agencies and allow these stakeholders to comment on the proposal and suggest alternative actions. NEPA thus promotes both government transparency and thoughtful, informed government decision making. By requiring federal agencies to engage in thoughtful review  before a decision is made, NEPA ensures that the public has the tools it needs to advocate against dangerous or poorly planned federal projects, and for better, more sustainable solutions.

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