White House Environmental Office Recommendations Could Shut Out Public from Environmental Review Process, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (September 24, 2003) -- Recommendations announced today in a report by the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) could obstruct public input on key federal decisions on the environment, according to an analysis by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The report, "Modernizing NEPA Implementation," was issued by CEQ's National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Task Force.

"The Bush administration's 'streamlining' strategy for NEPA would amount to steamrolling environmental protections and public input," said NRDC Senior Attorney Sharon Buccino. "'Modernizing' the key law that ensures public participation in federal environmental policy is a code word for shutting the public out."

NEPA has been called the Magna Carta of U.S. environmental laws. Signed into law in 1970 by President Nixon, it requires federal officials to assess the environmental impact of agency decisions and give the public a say in those decisions. NEPA also is the statute that created the CEQ.

According to Buccino, two sections in the NEPA task force's recommendations would undermine NEPA's guarantees of public participation and environmental review. First, the section on environmental assessments recommends scaling back the amount of required analysis of an activity's environmental impact (pages 64-75). Federal agencies prepare environmental assessments to avoid having to prepare a more detailed environmental impact statement, which require greater public participation in the process. More environmental assessments would cut out public input, and weakening the requirements for these assessments would open the door to more environmentally damaging projects.

Second, the task force's recommendations for what are called "categorical exclusions" could allow more environmentally destructive activities to escape review and public input altogether (pages 57-63). Federal agencies give categorical exclusions to activities that supposedly do not have an effect on the environment. That means that they are not subject to NEPA and can be initiated without public input. The Bush administration has expanded these exclusions to include activities that will undoubtedly harm the environment, such as so-called forest "thinning" projects that will open up public lands to more logging. For further background on the import of these changes to NEPA, see this backgrounder.

"The Bush administration is all too willing to sacrifice public participation and environmental review to promote its pro-development, pro-industry agenda," said Buccino. Fortunately in some cases the courts have stepped in. For example, a federal judge recently blocked new oil and gas exploration in Utah near Arches National Park for failure to comply with NEPA (SUWA v. Norton, 237 F.Supp.2d 48 (D.D.C. 2002). But just last month the Bureau of Land Management issued a new policy that will allow oil and gas companies to drill without minimizing the damage their actions do to the environment (for the policy document, go to the BLM website.) In the same document, BLM directed its staff to review conditions on oil and gas leases to ensure that they are "the least restrictive necessary to accomplish the desired protection." For more examples of the Bush administration's campaign to roll back environmental safeguards, see the Bush Record.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages

Defending NEPA from Assault