How NEPA can be Improved

President Obama in the State of the Union:

 “We will need Congress to protect more than three million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer.  But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible.”

During the State of the Union, the President addressed the need for infrastruture and the need to finish a transportation bill and water resources bill.  The water resources bill, a bill for flood control, beach re-nourishment, and port dredging, has many provisions that NRDC has opposed that undercut the environmental review provisions These anti-environmental provisions are based on bad provisions in the last transportation bill that my colleague Deron Lovaas addressed.  The President’s message to both House and Senate is clear: that legislative changes to the NEPA process are not needed-- there are sufficient authorities under the present law to address at least the legitimate concerns of critics of the NEPA process through the administrative process.

There is precedent for this. After passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) better known as the Stimulus Bill, the President ordered agencies to use the least legal burdensome path that met the requirements of the law.  This was very successful. The Council of Environmental Quality, the body responsible by law for overseeing the NEPA process, tracked the impact of the NEPA process during the time of ARRA.  CEQ’s tracking of Federal NEPA reviews for 193,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) projects revealed that 70% of NEPA reviews for ARRA projects were completed by September 2010, and 99.9% were completed by September 30, 2011. Agencies were able to apply Categorical Exclusions (the least intensive form of NEPA review) to 96% of ARRA projects.

It is important to point out, that these reviews were not half-baked to meet the pressure of getting ARRA projects funded quickly. First, the projects that were aimed for funding were “shovel ready” projects that often meant the projects had already completed their NEPA requirements.  In many cases, environmental information and public input obtained through the NEPA process helped agency decision-makers choose cheaper, more efficient, or more sustainable ARRA project designs.  Their report to Congress, starting at page 10, highlighted examples how the NEPA process saved money, protected important resources, improved projects for the benefit for all.