Protecting NEPA

Read this Op-Ed on Why We Need to Protect NEPA by Peggy Shepard, Co-Founder and Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and Christy Goldfuss, Senior Vice President for Energy and Environment Policy at the Center for American Progress

Listen to our webinar to learn how to use NEPA to improve projects happening in your community.

What is NEPA, and Why Should You Care?

NEPA is an acronym for the National Environmental Policy Act. Signed into law in 1970, it requires federal agencies to study and analyze the environmental effects of proposed plans prior to making decisions on whether or not to proceed with them.

Before NEPA, federal agencies did not have to even consider the environmental impacts of their actions. After NEPA, these agencies, in cooperation with state and local governments, must use all practical resources to create conditions in which “man and nature can exist in productive harmony.”

Specifically, NEPA requires all federal agencies to prepare detailed Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements for projects and actions they undertake. The purpose of the law is two-fold, ensuring that the government does due diligence in determining the full extent of any potential impacts a proposed project may have on the environment and surrounding communities as well as ensuring that those communities are aware of any such potential impacts and have a voice in whether and how they are implemented.

By publishing these studies, as is required by NEPA, the public can not only gain a better understanding of the environmental impacts of a given project, but they can also respond accordingly. Again, this is critical because the law ensures that both the time and effort are taken to investigate and understand the environmental impacts as well as provides an opportunity for the public to meaningfully participate in the process.

NEPA also established a Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is required to monitor all federal agencies and ensure that they are adhering to the legislation.

To learn more about NEPA, read this NEPA Alert.

Why Does NEPA Need Protection?

The Trump administration is seeking to “streamline” and “expedite” the NEPA process, tipping the scale in favor of developers instead of the people. There are three major changes being proposed:

  1. Limiting Public Participation: The Trump administration wants to reduce the amount of time people have to read and respond to environmental studies and assessments by 33 percent, shortening the public commentary period from 45 days to just 30 days. These documents can be hundreds of pages long, and are often highly technical. Reducing the amount of time people have to fully understand these critical documents and their implications for their community will severely hamper a community’s ability to challenge the proposal and mount of well-conceived defense.
  2. Eliminating Cumulative Impacts: NEPA currently requires cumulative effects to be considered. That means if there is already a facility emitting the maximum-allowable amount of a particular chemical emission, the review process would have to take into consideration that any proposed new facilities that plan on emitting any amount of that same chemical would result in the community being exposed to cumulative levels of that pollutant that exceed the standards for safety. Under the proposed changes, cumulative impacts would no longer be taken into consideration. This is particularly bad news for our communities, which tend to already have existing facilities producing pollution.
  3. Categorical Exclusions: The proposed changes would also allow the government to give certain types of developers a free pass. For example, if the government opts to hire a federal contractor to do the work, they will not have to abide by NEPA since technically it’s no longer the federal government doing the project – even though they are fully-funding it.

While it’s true that the current NEPA process can be lengthy, that is actually a good thing. It ensures that projects are analyzed thoroughly, because the environmental impacts of poorly conceived projects can cause damage that lasts for decades – and even put lives at risk. The Trump administration and others may not always like the outcome of the process, which gives the public fair chance to participate in the discussion, but these proposed changes will limit the public’s ability to participate in the process while making it much easier for developers to avoid protecting the health and well-being of the communities affected by their projects.

To learn more about the proposed changes to NEPA, read this fact sheet.

What Can You Do to Help Protect NEPA?

The window to submit comments has closed. But you can still call or write your Senator and Representative to voice your opposition to these changes. And we are currently exploring alternative methods of voicing our opposition. We will continue to share information here as it becomes available.


Additional Resources

Citizen’s Guide to NEPA (in both English & Spanish)

Environmental Justice Considerations in the NEPA Process

WE ACT’s NEPA Alert #1: What is NEPA

WE ACT’s NEPA Alert #2: What is Changing

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