By James Morton Turner and Emily Pawley
(Originally published in The Globe Post)
For all of the mayhem and missteps of the Donald Trump administration, the president has been unswerving in his commitment to tearing down the nation’s environmental laws and regulations.
To date, much of Trump’s anti-environmental agenda has centered on undoing what President Barack Obama accomplished: pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, weakening regulatory standards for automakers, and throwing open public lands to fossil fuel extraction.
But last week, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Trump administration did something different: it set its deregulatory crosshairs on one of the nation’s foundational environmental laws.
National Environmental Policy Act
Since 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has required the federal government to consider the potential consequences for public health and the environment of major projects – power plants, bridges, and timber operations, for instance – before they were authorized.
That was an idea that made sense to lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats. When NEPA was enacted, it drew overwhelming bipartisan support, and President Richard Richard Nixon signed it into law. But, truth be told, no one at the time really understood just how consequential the act would become.
No law has been more important in ensuring that the public has a say in federal environmental decision-making than NEPA. It requires the government to analyze the potential impacts of projects, share that information publicly, solicit public comments, and then respond to those comments.
NEPA has a long record of success in improving federal decision-making. It has resulted in better protections for public drinking water in Utah, a balance between military readiness and national parks in California, and stronger protections for roadless areas on the national forests, just to highlight a few examples.
But you would have learned nothing about NEPA’s successes from President Trump. When he announced the administration’s proposed reforms, he dismissed environmental reviews and public involvement as nothing more than “endless delays” and lost jobs. That is why, he explained, “my administration has made fixing this regulatory nightmare a top priority.”
Trump and NEPA
The Trump administration faults NEPA for holding up everything from building “simple roads” to managing fisheries to erecting schools. Yet, most Americans have probably never heard of NEPA. That is because 96 percent of the time, projects receive expedited treatment because they are routine or do not pose a significant risk.
When a project does require a full environmental review, it is an intensive and time-consuming process. That is why the law is so consequential. To hear Trump tell it, NEPA reviews hold up projects for decades. Government studies show that 73 percent of these draft reviews are completed in fewer than 3 years. Less than 3 percent of reviews require more than a decade.
And when these detailed reviews are necessary, they are often crucial. The environmental review for Alaska’s proposed Pebble Mine, for example, showed that it threatens to destroy the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, worth $1.5 billion and employing 14,000 people, a poor return for the 300 mining jobs it promised. Under Obama, its permit was refused. Under Trump, the restrictions on the mine have been lifted.
Trump credits himself with being the first to reform NEPA since 1970. In fact, his administration has gummed up the regulatory works by cutting federal workforces and weakening earlier efforts to streamline the law’s implementation. The Obama administration’s NEPA reforms sought to strike a balance between making the process more efficient while honoring its core goals.
That is not the case this time. The proposal places an arbitrary two-year time limit on environmental reviews. It exempts projects from review which are determined to be “non-major,” a term ripe for abuse. And it prohibits giving attention to “cumulative” impacts, which will likely eliminate consideration of how individual projects contribute to large-scale problems, such as climate change.
‘Really Big Proposal’
How significant are these changes? Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, a longtime oil lobbyist, who is now responsible for overseeing the nation’s public lands and energy resources, summed it up this way: “This is a really, really big proposal.”
The administration promises this is only about procedural reform, not changing the nation’s basic protections for clean air and water. Do not be fooled. NEPA is not just about protecting the environment; it is really about giving citizens a say in some of the biggest and most consequential projects that the government authorizes.
Over the years, NEPA has been a powerful megaphone, allowing the public to voice their concerns as loudly as well-connected corporate interests. Trump’s support for the unpopular Pebble Mine, hugely enriching Northern Dynasty Minerals at the expense of ordinary Alaskans, without any doubt signals which voices will be heard most clearly now.
No wonder the Trump administration is so eager to move its proposed reforms of NEPA forward.