When Trump administration Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas industry lobbyist, celebrates a proposed regulation as “really, really big…affect[ing] virtually every single decision by the federal government that affects the environment,” folks who care about clean air and water had better brace for some bad news. The proposed rule, drastically changing the way federal agencies implement the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), is very bad indeed.
NEPA was enacted in 1969, among the first wave of environmental legislation passed in the late sixties and early seventies – the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973 – in an attempt to reverse the degradation of the nation’s air, water, and natural resources. It is the cornerstone federal environmental law, requiring that any major action undertaken, permitted or funded by the federal government be assessed to determine its impact on our air, land and waters. Federal agencies are required to prepare environmental assessments and, if necessary, more detailed environmental impact statements (EIS) that evaluate the impact of the proposed project, consider alternatives that would have lesser impacts and, perhaps most importantly, open the process to public scrutiny and comment.
NEPA is based on the common-sense notion of “look before you leap,” that we should know the impacts that federal actions such as constructing highways, pipelines, dams, power plants, transmission lines and other projects will have on the nation’s land, air, and water before we build them. The law provides opportunities for communities and individuals to learn about projects affecting their neighborhoods, evaluate the impacts of the project as described in the EIS, and make their voices heard through the public comment process. Over the last 50 years, thousands of projects that would have wreaked untold damage on the environment have been modified or even stopped after NEPA review.
The Trump administration’s proposals to undermine the law, on the other hand, defy common sense. Lowlights include:
- Redefining “major federal action” to eliminate NEPA review of a large swath of federal activity;
- Ending requirements to consider the cumulative impacts of multiple projects;
- Inviting private sector project proponents to prepare their own environmental reviews (Fox, welcome to the chicken coop!);
- Allowing federal agencies to completely ignore climate change(!) when evaluating projects; and
- Severely curtailing public participation, tearing out the very heart of the Act.
Fortunately, our voices haven’t been silenced yet. You can help stop the Trump administration from kneecapping NEPA by taking action here. Time is short, so act now! The deadline to submit comments on the proposed rule is March 10, 2020.