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 our first NEPA Alert.
Why Does NEPA Need Protection?
The Trump administration’s 2018 infrastructure plan seeks to “streamline” and “expedite” the NEPA process, creating a fixed deadline that would limit the amount of time agencies can take to complete their environmental studies and assessments. That means that agencies will likely be rushed or forced to cut corners when conducting environmental impact studies, or base their findings on limited or incomplete data. That’s bad news for everyone – except those trying to steamroll a flawed proposal through the approval process.
Currently, federal agencies are free to take as much time as they need to study, analyze, and assess the potential environmental impacts of projects. On average, NEPA permitting takes between three and five years, allowing for sufficient time to thoroughly study the proposal and give the public ample time to digest those findings and weigh in with their support or concerns. The Trump administration has proposed a 21-month cap on the process, slashing the average amount of time it takes to conduct a thorough and fair review by more than half.
Not only would this undermine the government’s ability to study and assess these proposals, but it would also severely curtail the public’s ability to review, understand, and voice their views about them. And limiting the public’s ability to participate effectively in the environmental review process is clearly a key goal of these proposed changes to NEPA, as the administration has already eliminated the letter grade system, which was a tool designed to help the public easily gauge the impacts of proposed projects without having to digest the entirety of the detailed scientific assessment.
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 would prevent federal agencies from doing the thorough and essential analysis needed to protect the public.
To learn more about the proposed changes to NEPA, read our second NEPA Alert.
What Can You Do to Help Protect NEPA?
Given all the ways in which the Trump administration has been working to undermine environmental policies, procedures, and safeguards in an apparent effort to put corporate profits ahead of public safety and interest, it’s not surprising that these proposed changes to NEPA haven’t received widespread public attention. But NEPA has become a mainstay of the environmental movement and an essential tool for safeguarding our environment as well as the public’s health and well-being.
There are a number of things you can do help protect NEPA. For starters, you can share this information with family, friends, and colleagues. The purpose of NEPA is to inform the public, so it’s only natural that informing the public is an important first step in safeguarding this legislation.
You can also call or write your elected officials. Let them know that you are aware of the proposed changes to NEPA and oppose them. Encourage them to examine the proposed changes and oppose them as well.
In addition, we expect further opportunities to make comments and take other actions on these proposed rule changes. We will stay abreast of the latest developments and share them here as well as on social media.
Citizen’s Guide to NEPA (in both English & Spanish)