The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has helped federal agencies know any and all potential impacts proposed infrastructure projects may have on the environment, economy, and local communities. It’s a key pillar of environmental protection in the U.S. So of course on Thursday—in true Trumpian fashion—the president proposed key changes to the law that would reduce environmental protections.
His announcement came with assurances that regulation would stay “strong” and that the U.S. has some of the “cleanest air and cleanest water on Earth,” but cmon, we all know better than to trust this guy.
NEPA is designed to help create harmony between development, productivity, and the natural world, Cheryl Wasserman, former associate director for policy analysis at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance for more than 40 years, told Earther. The goal of the law isn’t to squash proposed projects, such as highways, mines, airports, or even pipelines. Instead, the act is there so federal agencies to consider all the facts before they issue a stamp of approval or denial.
“NEPA is an international treasure,” she said.
However, considering the facts takes time. In 2018, the Council on Environmental Quality found that the average timeline for an environmental impact statement between 2010 and 2017 was 4.5 years. So Trump, a man best known for constructing giant buildings and golf courses before running the most powerful country on Earth, wants to speed up the process. At first glance, his proposal sounds great, right? After all, there’s the critical infrastructure we need that should be built sooner rather than later, such as schools on Native American reservations, roads in rural communities, or visitor centers in our national parks.
“There is no question that there are opportunities for greater efficiency in the process,” Wasserman told Earther. “But those should not be traded off for poor decision-making, and it is sound decision-making that the NEPA process strives for—with input from all stakeholders, including the public.”
And that’s where the concern lies. If you want to speed up the process, maybe provide more funding to environmental agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service so that it can hire enough employees to finish reviews in a timely manner. You don’t do what the Trump administration is doing and opt to exempt entire types of projects from the process altogether.
The proposed changes to NEPA include allowing federal agencies to exclude certain projects from NEPA analysis. The proposal doesn’t name what type of projects those would be, but any sort of exclusion presents environmental risks. All major development projects should have environmental oversight to ensure they won’t infringe on critical wildlife habitat, harm water resources, or destroy culturally sensitive areas.
And these are totally realistic scenarios under Trump. This is the guy who killed the Clean Power Plan and wants to allow more methane (another greenhouse gas) to be released into the air. He’s the same guy who shrunk Bears Ears National Monument so it could be opened for mining and fossil fuel exploration despite outcry from Native American tribes that see it as a cultural treasure. Ditto for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It seems pretty unlikely small towns or vulnerable Native American communities are the targeted beneficiaries for the proposed changes. But there’s one industry Trump has constantly helped who has a lot to gain.
“Let’s be clear about this,” Nathaniel Shoaff, a senior attorney at the Sierra Club, told Earther. “These changes are designed to help the fossil fuel industry.”
The proposed changes to NEPA also go on to include removing “cumulative impacts” a project would have. And the biggest cumulative impact of fossil fuel project is greenhouse gas emissions and the climate changes they bring.
The proposed text reads:
“CEQ’s proposed revisions to simplify the definition are intended to focus agencies on consideration of effects that are reasonably foreseeable and have a reasonably close causal relationship to the proposed action. In practice, substantial resources have been devoted to categorizing effects as direct, indirect, and cumulative, which, as noted above, are not terms referenced in the NEPA statute.”
No single fossil fuel project alone—whether it’s a gas power plant, oil pipeline, or coal mine—is responsible for all the climate crisis. Taken together, however, they massively contribute to it. The cumulative impact of these projects is, among other things, rising temperatures, higher seas, and worsening air quality. And it’s this cumulative impact that has allowed federal agencies to deny permits for projects such as the Keystone XL Pipeline in the past under Obama.
What’s more, this new NEPA would set time limits to environmental review and the process at large. That not only means less time to examine project alternatives and impacts, it also means less time for the public to comment on a proposed project.
And that’s really the beauty of NEPA: It gives the public an inside look into what a project could mean for their community or public lands. It gives them the opportunity to share their thoughts with the federal government, inviting the public into the decision making process.
“This is an attempt to take the public’s voice out of the process, which is contrary to why we have NEPA in the first place,” Shoaff said. “The lowest bar we should expect from our government is to be honest with the public about the impacts of the projects they approve, and this proposal is designed to do away with that obligation.”