In January of 2020, the White House announced massive changes to an important suite of laws that protect sensitive environments. The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, are the regulations which require major infrastructure projects to undergo environmental review before any ground is broken. It most notably applies to the building of highways, pipelines, and waste facilities.
The changes the Trump administration intends to implement will severely limit NEPA’s application, excluding some projects entirely from review. Projects with little federal funding will be able to conduct their own, opaque environmental impact reviews before moving forward. Any language in NEPA’s guidelines about “cumulative” effects will be reviewed, which means that projects do not have to be viewed in the context of their accumulated effect on the environment. For instance, each possible pipeline leak will be evaluated as if it were the only leak in history, and not part of humanity’s total influence.
“Since the NEPA statute was enacted over 50 years ago, the environmental review and permitting process has become much more complex and time consuming, and can result in delays of critical infrastructure projects for communities,” said Mary Neumayr, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said at a public hearing on the changes.
Critics of these changes view the edited requirements as a near-total gutting of the intended function of NEPA, which is to protect natural spaces and resources. Proponents say NEPA’s review requirements are excessive and obstructionist, and cost jobs and money.
The largest pushback to the changes so far is coming from the attorneys general of 18 states, who have written a formal commentary on the executive decision to change NEPA. They call the White House’s proposed changes “unlawful, unreasonable, and unjustified.”
“These changes grant extraordinary discretion to federal agencies and project proponents while limiting consideration of environmental and public health impacts from federal actions,” says the commentary penned by the attorneys general. The changes would “trade reasoned and informed decision making for unjustified expedience.”
The comments were submitted by the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinios, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
The commentary period on this executive decision runs through the end of March 2020, after which the ruling will be finalized by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which penned the decision.