Trump Guts the National Environmental Policy Act

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Before there was the NEPA, rivers burned and cities across the US were choked with smog. For the Trump administration, the only good environmental protection is no environmental protection. Working in lock-step with industry lobbyists, EPA Chief David Bernhardt pushes to weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, the most fundamental environmental regulation in the country.

No environmental law is sacred to the Trump administration. That includes the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the first laws written that establishes a national framework to protect the environment. The administration announced the “modernization” of NEPA on January 9, 2020, claiming that it will “improve our communities.” 

The proposed rule will create a two-year time limit for the completion of environmental impact statements and one-year for the completion of environmental assessments. The Trump administration makes big claims for what else the proposed rule will do, including reducing unnecessary burdens and delays for environmental review. However, what the proposed rule actually will do is allow federal agencies to not factor the effects major infrastructure projects would have on the climate.

While announcing the proposed rule, President Trump claimed that it would “completely overhaul the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that has created these massive obstructions.” He also said that “we’re going to have very strong regulation, but it’s going to go very quickly.” Deregulation is the name of the game with his administration. For every new regulatory action, Trump has “taken nearly eight deregulatory actions,” according to a White House fact sheet.

What the National Environmental Policy Act does

Signed into law in 1970, NEPA is the foundation of environmental protection in the country and even around the world. Some refer to it as the Magna Carta of environmental laws. As the Environmental Protection Agency explains, its “basic policy is to assure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment.” When federal activities such as building airports, military complexes, highways, and parkland purchases are proposed, NEPA requirements are invoked. Two forms of environmental assessments are required under NEPA: Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). 

“We live in a democracy, not a dictatorship. Americans deserve to have their voices heard before their families’ health and well-being are put at risk by projects that bring unwanted and unnecessary pollution and disruption into their communities,” said Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

“While our world is burning, President Trump is adding fuel to the fire by taking away our right to be informed and to protect ourselves from irreparable harm.

The truth and lies surrounding NEPA

The Trump administration makes several false assumptions about NEPA, namely that its permitting process takes too long. Project NEPA, a campaign of the Partnership Project, debunked that assumption. More than 95 percent of federal projects only go through minimal environmental review because they receive a categorical exclusion and are then exempt from detailed environmental review. What Project NEPA found is that a lack of federal funding is the biggest barrier to project completion.

What the NEPA rollbacks do is gut U.S. environmental policy in a way that delights the nation’s biggest polluters. Or in the words of Project NEPA: 

“These rollbacks will entrench the Trump administration’s denial of climate science, severely weaken the environmental review process, and have devastating impacts on public input in federal decision-making.”

The driving force behind gutting the National Environmental Policy Act

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt continues to push for gutting NEPA. A 2017 memo calls for NEPA practices to be limited. The purpose of the memo was to call for NEPA to be “streamlined,” which in essence means putting time limits on environmental analysis. “The memo was, indeed, intended to fast-track oil and gas development on public lands and mirrors the rollbacks released by President Trump today,” according to the Western Values Project.

The true purpose of gutting NEPA is to make it easier for polluters to fast track projects. In November 2019, 33 industry groups urged the Trump administration to finish overhauling NEPA. The groups, which included the American Petroleum Institute, sent a letter to White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair Mary Neumayr, asking for the law to be modernized. 

What you can do

Make your voice heard about NEPA. Sign the 314 Action petition telling Trump to not change this important law.

Comments (1)
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