WASHINGTON January 6, 2020 – The Trump administration will propose this week to gut National Environmental Policy Act rules for conducting environmental reviews of federal activities — changes that will threaten critical safeguards for air, water and wildlife. The proposal will also squelch public participation in federal agency decisions and impose arbitrary time limits on completion of environmental reviews.
Under the proposed rules, federal agencies could ignore whether a project’s greenhouse gas emissions would worsen climate change. The proposal would also eliminate consideration of cumulative impacts, such as damage to public lands and wildlife from fossil fuel extraction. Oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure would escape meaningful environmental analysis, with no consideration of harm to animals like sage grouse or marine mammals from drilling rigs and other projects.
“It’s shameful that the Trump administration is ripping apart America’s cornerstone environmental law on its 50th anniversary,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Trump’s gift to the fossil fuel industry and special interests will silence ordinary Americans while giving polluters a free pass to trash the environment, destroy public lands and kill wildlife.”
The National Environmental Policy Act is sometimes called the “magna carta” of environmental protections. Congress passed the Act nearly unanimously, and it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on Jan. 1, 1970.
NEPA gives the public a voice in government decision-making and ensures that federal agencies take a hard look at potential environmental harms before making decisions. The law has served as the model for conducting environmental reviews for more than 100 countries and dozens of U.S. states and localities.
Data show that NEPA has worked well, despite unproven claims by the Trump administration regarding project delays. For instance, more than 192,000 projects, worth about $300 billion, efficiently went through the NEPA process as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The NEPA process also has been vital in raising concerns about environmentally destructive projects, including the Keystone XL pipeline.
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Catastrophes can result when a federal agency exempts a project from environmental review. The Interior Department excluded the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig from an in-depth environmental review under the premise that it would not result in significant harm. In 2010 the oil rig exploded when the blowout preventer failed, killing 11 people and causing the largest oil spill in U.S. history.
“Trump’s attack on NEPA means we’ll likely see more massive oil spills and other environmental catastrophes,” said Hartl. “Forcing federal agencies to ignore environmental threats is a disgraceful abdication of our responsibility to protect the planet for future generations.”
The Trump administration has already taken several steps to weaken NEPA.
In October 2018 the Environmental Protection Agency abruptly stopped issuing public grades on NEPA reviews, which helped determine how well federal agencies were complying with the act. The agency’s grading system provided a clear, nontechnical measure of agencies’ environmental reviews of projects, from pipelines to coal mines to logging in national forests. The Center sued the EPA for failing to release public records on why it stopped issuing the grades.
The public will have 60 days to submit comments on the proposed rule.