23 Attorneys General Respond to Trump Administration's Changes to NEPA

Emily Folk

The Trump administration's assault on environmental and public health goes to the core of American environmental and public health leadership - or lack thereof. Proposing changes that will weaken the National Environmental Policy Act, the country's foundation of environmental protection spells more devastation for vulnerable communities and the natural world.

 On Aug. 28, 23 attorneys general sued the White House to block changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that would make it easier to launch major projects with less environmental review.

NEPA, originally enacted in 1970, is a cornerstone of modern environmental law. The act forces government agencies to review the potential impact of major industrial and construction projects, like power plants, roads, and bridges. Agencies also have to seek public input on these projects.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, is led by the attorneys general for Washington state and California. It claims that the White House "failed to review the [rule changes'] significant environmental and public health impacts" as required under NEPA, making the change unlawful.

Attorneys General File Lawsuit to Defend NEPA

If the Trump administration's rule change were to go through, project leaders would be allowed to limit alternatives that would be considered during environmental review. The purview of this review would be limited as well, with indirect and long-term impacts of projects falling outside the scope. Affected communities would also be required to submit more technical feedback, which may not always be possible without outside assistance from scientists and environmental law professionals.

The White House has claimed that the rule change is necessary to prevent bureaucratic delays to new industrial projects.

The new lawsuit is not the first to be filed against the rule change. Three different suits, filed by several coalitions of major environmental groups, have also challenged the change to NEPA on similar grounds.

So far, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which put forth the rule change, has not commented on any of the four current suits.

How the White House's Rule Change Would Affect the Environment

The change to NEPA will likely have major impacts on the environment. If a project could be completed in a way that would reduce environmental impact, like adopting LEED standards for a new office building, it may not even be considered.

In the past, public input on NEPA-regulated projects has often been key in ensuring they do minimal environmental damage. For example, the route for the final Hoover Dam Bypass, which opened in 2012, was only chosen due to public complaints about the possible impact of the original path.

The initial project plan had the bypass running through a corridor of pristine wilderness and was likely to cause significant environmental damage. Due to the public input period, local communities were able to alert project managers about potential harm. The final bypass instead ran closer to major municipalities, effectively minimizing that environmental impact.

Without public input, the bypass still would have been built — but the route would have been much worse for the area.

In addition to limiting the number of success stories, the NEPA rule change would also make required environmental reviews less comprehensive. For projects that receive little federal funding, owners may be able to bypass these reviews altogether.

These changes could have a devastating impact on the environment and lead to energy projects that are even less safe than they are now.

Rule Change Could Limit Core Environmental Law

If successful, the suit filed by the attorneys general could save one of the cornerstones of modern environmental law.

However, if the Trump rule change goes forward, it could spell disaster for communities living near new industrial and energy development sites. Limited environmental review and stricter protocols on community input will likely make projects less safe for people and the planet alike.

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