February 7, 2020

The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently decided to do the opposite of what their name suggests, taking a sledgehammer to one of the nation’s oldest and most important environmental laws. 

Snowshoe Hare Denali NP
Jacob W. Frank/NPS

The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA for short, is the backbone of this nation’s environmental protections, ensuring that federal agencies publicly evaluate the environmental effects of their actions and include the public in their decision-making process. It was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 1969 and is one of the most important environmental and government transparency laws in the United States. The success of this fundamental law, now marking its 50th anniversary, has been celebrated and emulated around the world.

What’s happening to NEPA? 

On January 10, CEQ proposed changes to NEPA that would undermine the law’s fundamental principle of “look before you leap.” These changes would limit the number of projects that need to disclose their impacts, encourage agencies to ignore important issue (namely, climate change), constrain the public’s opportunities for input, and allow developers to do their own environmental analysis. If finalized and implemented, these new draft regulations are certain to have damaging effects to wildlife, habitats, and human communities. 

Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument
Bob Wick/BLM

Unfortunately, this administration has a history of promoting mining, drilling and development interests over the values of human, wildlife and environmental health, and this is their biggest move yet to permanently enshrine that hierarchy. The reckless audacity in the face of a mounting global environmental crisis is astonishing. 

The Threat to Wildlife  

For too many species, the story of their decline is one of “death by a thousand cuts,” the loss of a population here, an important habitat over there. The importance of looking at the effects of an action not in isolation, but in the context of the additive impacts of other actions that could impact the species, has been at the core of NEPA analysis for its entire history. 

Canada lynx in Denali NP
Robert Watson

The new regulations entirely delete this concept of “cumulative impacts,” opening the door for agencies to ignore the big picture of cumulative harm to species and habitats.

A Policy of Ignoring Climate Change

As temperatures, sea level, risks, and extinction rates rise around the world, it is increasingly critical for federal agencies to thoughtfully and thoroughly consider climate change as part of NEPA analysis for new projects. The devastating effects of climate change are becoming more apparent every day, and yet the new regulations hand agencies a list of effects that they should ignore, which, when taken together, are essentially code for “Thou shalt not consider climate change,” and it would prevent agencies from discussing:

  • the impacts of the greenhouse gas emissions from their projects (such as coal mining, oil and gas drilling, pipeline construction, etc.); 
  • the impacts of climate change on their project (e.g. the effects of sea-level rise or hurricanes on roads and infrastructure built on the coasts); and
  • the ways that climate change could magnify the damaging impacts of a proposed action on vulnerable species, ecosystems and human communities (e.g. how the border wall could threaten species by cutting off their ability to shift their ranges). 

In a world where we clearly need more, not less, acknowledgement of how we affect climate and how the climate affects us, it is profoundly irresponsible that the Trump administration would propose to exclude it from environmental reviews.

Other Dangers Buried in the New Regulations 

Denver March for Science Activists Rally
Defenders of Wildlife

The proposed regulations would also undermine public involvement in agency decision making under NEPA. The proposal deletes language found in the current CEQ regulations saying that federal agencies should “encourage and facilitate public involvement in decisions” and say instead only that the public is to be “informed.”

Even worse, the proposal gives agencies several excuses to avoid doing NEPA analysis, such as by citing another law as an “out” or deciding that the proposed action isn’t “major,” even if its impacts are! And straight out of the “department of foxes and henhouses,” the proposal allows environmental impact statements to be prepared by contractors that have conflicts of interest, such as financial ties to the applicant project applicant, or even by the applicant itself, such as a company proposing to mine or drill on public lands!

With such a dismal track record of protecting our environment, and with such open interest in promoting the interests of developers and oil drillers, the Trump administration cannot be trusted when meddling with our nation’s bedrock environmental laws. The administration’s ill-considered proposals to change the regulations implementing this bedrock law will significantly undermine the integrity of the NEPA planning process and expose the American people and the environment to serious harm.

Our right as Americans to have a say, participate and hold the government accountable for major federal decisions. The health and safety of our communities, our air and water, our public lands and wildlife, and our environment are on the line. The National Environmental Policy Act may be a law you have never heard of, but it keeps our natural heritage, communities and environment safe.

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