Benjamin Franklin wrote that “an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.” Just over 200 years later, the United States passed a law that put that sentiment into practice in the context of federal government decision-making that may impact an increasingly stressed environment. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) marked a turning point in our nation’s relationship with the environment, and it is based on the idea that if we take the time to understand the full effects of our decisions before we make them, we tend to make better decisions. The Trump administration recently proposed changes to the Council on Environmental Quality’s NEPA regulations that, like its proposed changes to Endangered Species Act regulations, would institutionalize ignorance in federal decision-making that impacts the environment. These proposed changes are bad, their origins ugly, and yet, fifty years after NEPA was signed into law, they also offer the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and informed decision-making. In that sense the administration’s attempt to gut NEPA may turn out to be good.
NEPA requires federal agencies to conduct in-depth analyses of the potential environmental, including human, impacts of “major federal actions that significantly affecting […] the environment.” Under NEPA, federal agencies analyze the potential impacts of actions that they directly undertake, permit or fund, in order to determine if the potential impacts are significant. If they are, the agencies must deeply and holistically analyze those impacts, consider alternatives that may have lesser impacts, and run their preliminary analyses through a ground-truthing, often enlightening and sometimes humbling, public review and comment process. Only once these steps are done can the federal agency make its final decision. This investment results in final decisions that tend to eliminate or at least minimize the impact of a proposed project on the environment.
In myriad ways, the administration’s proposed changes would undercut these fundamental attributes of NEPA. The proposal includes an attempt to limit the types of federal actions that trigger NEPA, to exclude, for example, the analysis of projects that may require multiple non-federal permits or have only partial federal funding. The proposal would eliminate the requirement that cumulative effects of a proposed project be analyzed, despite CEQ’s own acknowledgement of the significance of such effects. Further, using the same sleight of hand from the administration’s ill-considered proposal to change Endangered Species Act regulations, the proposal would exclude climate change from cumulative effects that must be analyzed. The proposal also eliminates the requirement for review of the indirect effects of an action, such as downstream pollution impacts from an industrial activity. In another provision rife with potential conflicts of interest, corporations could prepare their own impact analyses, a job now accomplished by the more objective federal agencies (though it is often paid for by corporations). And the proposal limits public involvement in both time and substance, undercutting NEPA’s critical check against government (and in the future possibly corporate) myopathy or hubris.
Senator Henry Jackson, upon the introduction of NEPA legislation in Congress, stated the following:
The survival of man, in a world in which decency and dignity are possible, is the basic reason for bringing man’s impact on his environment under informed and responsible control.
The CEQ proposals, individually, and dare I say cumulatively, would gut this vision, and finalizing them would be bad for people and our environment.
Further, the origins of the CEQ proposal appear to be downright ugly. As one example, the British oil company BP lobbied the Trump administration to weaken NEPA as way to “benefit BP’s operations in the US” and, as reported, “clear the way for major infrastructure projects to bypass checks.” And then, just a short while after the administration revealed its NEPA proposal, BP announced a new initiative aimed at reducing its environmental impact, with its CEO stating that “[t]he world does have a carbon budget, and it is running out fast.” So on the one hand BP privately lobbies the United States to undercut this most fundamental of environmental laws, and with the other hand it publicly claims it will take action to address the environmental impacts from its operations. How dreadful.
There is a silver lining in this dark cloud, however. It exists in the renewed public discussion about the importance of facts to government decision-making, including those that some see as so inconvenient that they would rather not know them. The groundswell of public opinion that led to Republican President Richard Nixon signing NEPA into law in 1970 will, I predict, result in a reaffirmation of the importance of NEPA and other environmental laws which this administration has sought to roll back, and the rollbacks will themselves be rolled back. And that is for the greater good.