NEPA: The Magna Carta of Environmental Law

This post was researched and written by NRDC Land & Wildlife Intern Emily Hampton:

You might already know that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) paved the way for our country’s existing environmental protections.  What you might not know is that it has gained international celebrity, earning the moniker—the “Magna Carta” of environmental law.  Much like the Magna Carta protected people from the dangers of monarchical rule, NEPA protects people by providing transparency in federal projects.   Both the Magna Carta and NEPA espouse the ideals of public participation and democracy by giving citizens a voice in government decisions.  In its purpose, NEPA aims “to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man.”  After its creation in 1969, NEPA worked to promote these efforts at home while also laying the groundwork for a host of countries and international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) to imitate it.

Prior to NEPA’s inception, no legal mechanism for environmental review was in place in the international community at large.  Following its integration into U.S. domestic policy, others around the world took note and followed suit.  In 1972, the UN held its first Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.  The Stockholm Conference proclaimed that “a point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences.”  Sound familiar?  The Commission picked up on NEPA’s environmental focus and translated it into an international priority

After the Stockholm Conference, the UN’s Brundtland Commission released a report in 1987 called Our Common Future that detailed the UN’s revolutionary concept of sustainable development.  In the report, the Commission called on countries “to begin managing environmental resources to ensure both sustainable human progress and human survival.”  Once NEPA opened the door for the international community to recognize the necessity of addressing the environmental impact of human action, it became a common theme.  Future conferences and reports followed, including the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the more recent Rio+20 in 2012. 

In addition to its purpose, NEPA also exported its processes through environmental assessments (EA) and environmental impact statements (EIS).  EISs determine and disclose environmental impacts of a project before it’s approved, and they now exist in most countries.  For instance, our Canadian neighbors implemented an environmental review process in 1973 that required environmental review of all federal projects in Canada.  Similar action was taken by countries such as Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and the European Union.  The list goes on and even includes international organizations.   The World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the World Health Organization are just a few international groups that have developed NEPA-like mechanisms of environmental review. 

But why is all of this important?  We have a homegrown, American-made policy that’s been compared to the Magna Carta and has been emulated in 160 nations.  That’s nothing to sneeze at.  NEPA was first out of the gate, and now the majority of the world considers its premise routine.  Here’s the problem—NEPA is under attack by the 113th Congress with bills such as H.R. 1965 and the RAPID Act that attempt to limit the environmental review process and public participation.  For decades, NEPA has protected us and the environment by giving us a voice, and now it needs our protection.  Urge your Congressional representatives to keep NEPA intact by demanding they reject the slew of bills aimed at destroying it.