Trump Disregards Citizens in His Rush for Polluting Projects

Under the administration's new plan, a huge swath of government-approved and funded projects would be exempt from NEPA reviews, in an attempt to shut out the public.
Trump NEPA
President Trump smiling at Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during the announcement of the sweeping changes to NEPA, January 9, 2020
Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty

Under the administration's new plan, a huge swath of government-approved and funded projects would be exempt from NEPA reviews, in an attempt to shut out the public.

Updated: January 21, 2020

A half a century ago, members of Congress from both parties and all corners of our nation came together to pass a landmark law that gave citizens a guaranteed say in the projects that will define our nation.

More than an environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, is at the core of our democracy. NEPA speaks of the “human environment.”[1] It requires our government to analyze the impacts of its proposed decisions on each of us—on our health and economic well being, as well as on our natural surroundings. Before the law was in place, residents might not know if a highway was set to split their neighborhood in half, let alone have a chance to influence it.

This fundamental idea of government openness and public input might seem unassailable. But to those few seeking to rush through oil pipelines, coal mines, or new gas export terminals without any consideration of their impacts or the wishes of the public, NEPA has always been a niggling distraction. They would prefer to have their way behind closed doors.

And now, unfortunately, those polluters have an advocate in the White House.

In one of his first actions of the new year, President Trump unveiled a proposal that would cripple the way NEPA is applied to federally approved and funded projects.

I will lay out a few of the harmful changes President Trump proposed below, but first some background on NEPA. The law requires that before the federal government takes a major action such as approving a pipeline or funding a highway, it tell the public of its plan and consider the project's impacts on the environment. This ensures that sweetheart deals aren’t cut behind closed doors. And it helps smoke out dumb ideas before the government wastes money on them.

Especially given the risks of a changing climate and the storms and heat waves that are becoming more intense and frequent, we need to plan and build to take these impacts into account. Ignoring the impacts won’t make them go away.

In addition, by requiring public input, an analysis of impacts and a consideration of alternatives, NEPA provides a mechanism to understand each other’s interests and find solutions that balance those varied points of view. Our fractured world needs to work toward that balancing now more than ever.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration wants to do all it can for a select few while ignoring the interests and points of view. 

First, under its plan, a huge swath of government-approved and funded projects would be exempt from NEPA reviews.

The proposal allows agencies to decide for themselves whether a project might have significant impacts. The whole purpose of NEPA is to give the public a say in whether or how a project will have a significant impact. NEPA is about inclusion, not exclusion. It requires federal agencies to cooperate “with State and local governments, and other concerned public and private organizations, to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance.”[2] Trump has lost sight of NEPA's mandate.

NEPA applies to “major federal actions.” Trump’s proposed rule would change the definition to exclude those actions where “minimal Federal funding or minimal Federal involvement” limits the agency’s control over “the outcome on the project.”[3] Talk about a recipe for litigation. What counts as "minimal"? What counts as influencing the "outcome"? Trump said he wants more certainty, but this proposal creates a lot less. 

Second, Trump wants to exclude consideration of the cumulative impacts of projects. 

NEPA promises decisions that make sense for tomorrow as well as today. The act speaks of our commitment as "trustee of the environment for succeeding generations." You can't do this without considering cumulative impacts. The current regulations recognize that individually minor actions may add up to a significant impact over time or space. Agencies must consider how their actions will contribute to or be affected by these combined, incremental effects of human activity in their environmental review. Trump's proposal would change the definition of "effect" to exclude "cumulative" effects.[4]

We can all see why considering the combined impacts matter. Each car trip, for example, isn’t emitting enough carbon dioxide to warm our planet, but billions of car trips each year now makes transportation the largest source of carbon pollution in our country. Or, in another context, eating one brownie isn’t going to spoil your diet, but eating one followed by another nine just might.

The cumulative analysis is especially important when considering the climate impacts of projects like coal export terminals or LNG facilities. As the nihilists in the climate denial world are fond of pointing out, any one project won’t stop climate change as it is a global phenomenon taking place over decades. But we also know that we cannot lock in new polluting infrastructure now because we need to get on a path to a clean future now. If our government tries to ignore the real impact of these projects, it will mean wasted investments, more carbon pollution, and more of the devastating impacts of climate change.

The rush to gut NEPA is based on a faulty set of facts. Trump talks about delay. But more than 95 percent of actions that undergo NEPA review don’t take that much time. For those that do, there’s a reason. The most contentious and wrongheaded projects, like the Keystone XL pipeline, require longer review. That’s how it should be. These projects affect our health, our communities, our future. NEPA gave us a voice. Trump is trying to silence it.  

NEPA was conceived with a profound, yet simple mandate: “To create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.” NEPA provides a powerful vision of a world built on respect—for animals, for land, and for each other. It doesn’t just provide a vision; it provides a path to get there. It’s up to us to follow it. 

To see the full text of the proposed rule and to comment on it, click here.

[1] 42 U.S.C. 4332(C)
[2] 42 U.S.C. 4331(a)
[3] CEQ, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 85 Fed.Reg. 1684, 1729 (Jan. 10, 2020).
[4] CEQ, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 85 Fed.Reg. at 1729