Signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was designed to ensure “democratic decision making” by requiring federal agencies to consider, and to disclose to the public, the environmental consequences of their actions. Although a proposal to amend NEPA from the Trump Administration has been widely anticipated, the astonishing scope of the planned rollback has sent shockwaves across the country.
NEPA has been an important vehicle for Crag’s clients and countless other conservation and community groups. It allows the public to play a role in decision making for major projects authorized, funded, or carried out by federal agencies—think construction of a deepwater port for export of Liquified Natural Gas, roadbuilding and logging on national forestland, and preparation of a new management plan for National Wildlife Refuges. NEPA requires that federal agencies must follow a set of “action-forcing” procedures to ensure that environmental values are injected into the decision making process.
The sheer magnitude of the Trump Administration’s plan makes it impossible to fully describe here. (Many organizations have written detailed accounts of the proposed changes, and there are even newly formed organizations solely dedicated to protecting NEPA—check out protectNEPA.org). Two critical features help illustrate the reckless and irresponsible nature of the plan.
First, the plan eliminates the requirement to consider “indirect” and “cumulative” impacts. The most glaring example of this would be climate change impacts, which can be more remote in time and space. Say an oil and gas company seeks authorization to drill a well on federal land. Under current NEPA rules, the federal agency landowner has a duty to consider not simply the direct impacts from construction and drilling, but also the potential downstream greenhouse gas emissions if the well is developed and the petroleum product released into the market. In addition, the proposed well could be one of 10 such wells in the area on the same federal land. Currently, the federal agency is required to consider the aggregate impacts from development of all of the wells in the geographic area—the “cumulative” impact. Under the proposed new rules, however, federal agencies would be exempted from considering such downstream and cumulative impacts, effectively masking a project’s true environmental consequences.
Second, the Trump Administration’s plan restricts opportunities for public input in several ways, including by limiting the types of projects subject to review, and, for projects still subject to review, artificially shortening the time period. If the NEPA process is eliminated or cut short, the public’s ability to have a voice in decisions impacting their land, air, water, and communities is severely diminished. The tragic (and likely intended) consequence is that marginalized communities that have long felt the disproportionate impacts of pollution will no longer have a seat at the table.
The “twin pillars” of NEPA—informed decision making and meaningful public involvement—have been the lodestar for federal agencies for over 50 years. The Trump Administration’s plan upends the democratic, scientifically based process in favor of cursory review and rushed decisions that put industry profits ahead of environmental and community wellbeing. Case in point: the plan has been cheered by fossil fuel interests, agribusinesses, and logging companies, while civil rights organizations, conservation and community groups, and a bipartisan collection of lawmakers are urging rejection of the plan and have vowed to challenge its approval in court.