NEPA rollback favors polluters while ignoring climate and science
The “Bill of Rights” for the environment is under attack. The Trump administration is proposing changes for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that would put the interests of polluters ahead of the public.
For 50 years, NEPA has been one of our most important laws protecting public health and safety and our environment, including the water we drink and the air we breathe. But the proposed changes would make it harder for local communities to have a say in federal decisions that affect human health and environment we live in.
NEPA requires the government to disclose potential environmental and health consequences when it approves mines, power plants, highway interchanges and other projects. This law also guarantees that the public can be involved and participate in those decisions. NEPA was enacted in 1970 in response to catastrophic environmental events of that era, like the Cuyahoga River catching on fire and chemical companies dumping toxic wastes without telling nearby communities.
This bedrock law is under attack now. On January 9, 2020, the White House Council on Environmental Quality proposed revised rules that would undermine this Bill of Rights for the environment.
The Trump proposal could harm local communities in a number of ways.
Puts polluters’ profits ahead of the public’s health
When a company wants to build a mine or drill for oil, NEPA historically has required a review process run by impartial professionals employed by the government. That review process looks at the environmental and health impacts of the proposed action and seeks feedback from the people whose drinking water, for example, could be contaminated by acid mine drainage or fracking fluids.
But under the Trump revisions to the NEPA process, companies would be allowed to write their own environmental reviews. They would no longer need to disclose conflicts of interests or financial stakes in the projects they are reviewing. In effect, the public would be asked to trust that the company’s financial motives would not skew the review process.
This approach would eliminate one of NEPA’s key tenets: that the government must perform a transparent, objective and science-based analysis of the impacts of its decisions.
Eliminates the public’s voice and ability sue for wrongdoing
The Trump proposal attacks another core tenet of NEPA: ensuring the public has a voice in their government decision-making. On top of severely limiting when the environmental review process would apply, the Trump proposal invites federal agencies to ignore public comments on those projects.
Imagine a mother’s concern about air pollution from a proposed fracking operation near her child’s school. If she doesn’t use “specific” enough language or include references to data sources and scientific methodologies, her comment might not be counted. As a result, she could potentially lose her ability to challenge the fracking approval in court. And if she does want to challenge the decision in court, she could even be required to post a bond to ensure that the fracking operations would not proceed before her lawsuit was resolved.
Creates loopholes galore
Currently, many government decisions must go through the NEPA review process – whether funding a highway project, authorizing commercial logging or permitting a uranium mine.
But the Trump proposal includes a series of massive and dangerous loopholes that could allow federal agencies and polluters to avoid any environmental review whatsoever. For example, a uranium mine project located mostly on private land could claim that the government’s role is too minimal, even if that mining operation had the potential to leak radioactive wastes.
Even worse, those conversations and decisions about whether environmental reviews need to be conducted could happen in closed-door meetings with the polluting company. And where NEPA does require disclosure of environmental consequences, even more loopholes would allow polluters and the federal government to only do the bare-minimum review or, in many instances, no review at all by claiming that the environmental and health impacts would be insignificant.
Further, the potential impacts that government projects could have on parks, endangered species, fragile archaeological sites and other sensitive resources would no longer be a factor in considering whether a detailed NEPA review is necessary. This change would pave the way to bulldoze through public lands and forests that provide clean air and drinking water or through the community park that provides a safe place for kids to play.
Ignores any options other than what polluters want
In the rare instance that a project would need to go through full environmental review, that review, under the proposed Trump rules, could be prejudiced from the get-go. The options on the table would be driven by the polluter’s agenda and what would be “economically and technologically feasible” for the company. In other words, the process would tip the scale toward logging, mining and drilling and ignore alternative courses of action proposed by a community that values clean air and water, healthy forests or wildlife habitat.
Perhaps most alarming, the Trump proposal would give federal agencies a permission slip to ignore how their own actions contribute to climate change – deeming the already catastrophic impacts of climate change too “remote” to be considered.
- Wilderness Society statement on USFS draft rule, “Conservation groups blast draft Forest Service rule to gut bedrock environmental law,” August 2019.
- Wilderness Society blog, “People need to know what the government is doing to the environment,” July 2019 update.
- Coalition letter to Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Comments on Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, August 2018.
How the National Environmental Policy Act Succeeds Locally – Examples
- NEPA Success Stories, Map and state-by-state stories, The Partnership Project.
- Natural Resources Defense Council, “Never Eliminate Public Advice: NEPA Success Stories,” (2015). Examples by state.
- Environmental Law Institute, Partnership Project, “NEPA Success Stories: Celebrating 40 Years of Transparency and Open Government,” (2010).
The Wilderness Society, founded in 1935, is the leading conservation organization working to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. With more than one million members and supporters, The Wilderness Society has led the effort to permanently protect 111 million acres of wilderness and to ensure sound management of our shared national lands. www.wilderness.org.
Michael Reinemer, Deputy Director Communications Strategy, The Wilderness Society, [email protected], 202-429-3949.