Guest column: Trump’s rewriting of NEPA rulebook would mean less power for the public |

Guest column: Trump’s rewriting of NEPA rulebook would mean less power for the public

Peter Hart
Peter Hart

On Jan. 1, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) into law. NEPA grew out of the turbulent 1960s when the dramatic impacts of industrialization, urbanization, and pollution were thrust into the national spotlight. This was the era when Rachel Carson documented the effects of indiscriminate pesticide use in “Silent Spring;” an oil well blowout covered 30 miles of beach with tar near Santa Barbara; and the Cuyahoga River caught on fire because it was so polluted.  

NEPA grew out of a broadly perceived need to better protect our environment and communities, and to give all people a say in government decision-making. The law passed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. Today it represents “our basic national charter for protection of the environment.” In essence, NEPA requires the government to look before leaping and to give the American people a voice. The law also requires government to consider and address inequities that lead to marginalized communities being disproportionately affected by pollution, climate change and other environmental impacts.

For 50 years the public and the environment have benefited from this visionary law. One local example is worthy of mention. In the 2000s, BLM issued dozens of oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide without NEPA compliance. The leases posed a threat to the Divide’s historic uses and unique natural values, but BLM failed to consider those impacts before selling them. The leases became subject of extraordinary controversy. For years, BLM ignored the problem. Public outrage grew and legal challenges mounted. Ultimately, BLM decided that a transparent NEPA process was the only way to resolve the problem. More than a decade after issuing the leases, BLM decided to take a hard look at its decision to sell them. Thorough environmental analysis and public engagement led to the conclusion that 25 of the leases should be cancelled. Local communities celebrated the outcome with unanimity. Failure to comply with NEPA caused the problem, complying with the law resulted in a roundly supported solution.

But NEPA has opponents, often people and corporations that stand to benefit from less public engagement, and those who are unconcerned with environmental impacts. Since inauguration, the Trump administration has been doing the bidding of NEPA opponents. The agenda is called streamlining. Basically, streamlining is about reducing public participation and environmental analysis — silencing us and ignoring potential impacts to expedite development. 

On Jan. 10, the Trump administration began its most dramatic rollback yet. The administration is proposing to rewrite the NEPA rulebook. NEPA itself only outlines broad national policy. To guide implementation of that policy, the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) was created to issue guidelines to federal agencies on how to implement NEPA’s goals. CEQ rules are where the rubber hits the road. They outline how agencies analyze the impacts of their actions and how they engage the public. These are the rules the Trump administration wants to gut. 

Basically, the proposal would mean fewer projects require NEPA review. Reviews that are required would be less thorough and involve fewer opportunities for public comment. Some of the worst changes include:

– The proposal redefines the term “major Federal action” so fewer projects would be eligible for environmental review and public input. 

– The proposal limits types of “effects” required to be analyzed. This would remove consideration of effects that are “remote in time, geographically remote, or the result of a lengthy causal chain.” Climate change is a clear target here. 

– The revision would eliminate the longstanding requirement to evaluate “cumulative effects.” Abandoning disclosure and analysis of the additive impacts of multiple projects paves the way for ‘death by a thousand cuts’ for communities and the environment.

– The proposal also contemplates limiting the range of alternatives that may be considered by agencies. Project alternatives are often considered the heart of NEPA. Considering a range of alternatives often results in the identification mitigation measures, saves taxpayer money, and makes a project more likely to be approved. But alternatives are on the chopping block. 

– The proposal includes hard deadlines for project approval, including two-year time limits for environmental impact statements and one-year limits for the environmental assessments regardless of project complexity or controversy. These arbitrary deadlines would force agencies to shortcut public participation and necessary analysis.

– Finally, the proposal would allow private corporations to prepare their own environmental impact statements “under the supervision of an agency,” thus eroding the objectivity of analysis.

These rollbacks are unnecessary. CEQ has acknowledged that regulations already provide ample flexibility to meet the goal of high-quality, efficient, and timely reviews. For five decades NEPA has allowed the public to effectively participate in agency decision-making. The law has resulted in better decisions for local communities and the environment.  The strength and flexibility of NEPA explain why it is the United States’ most widely imitated law, with over 160 other countries adopting laws modeled after NEPA. Nonetheless, the Trump administration intends to gut it for the benefit of a privileged few.

The comment period for this rollback runs through March 10. There will be a public hearing in Denver on Feb. 11. Details on the rulemaking are available on the CEQ website here. Wilderness Workshop will be working to push back on the proposal with written comments and urging our members to do the same.

Peter Hart is the staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop.

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