Trump Controversially Revamps NEPA- What Is At Stake?

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On July 15, Donald Trump, in Atlanta, announced a “top to bottom overhaul” of the regulations that implement NEPA.

Background 

The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) gave a notice of proposed rule-making. This was on January 1, 2020. The proposition was to update the rules implementing NEPA. The proposed rule aspired to modernize and clarify the regulations. It was to give way to a more powerful, effective and timely NEPA reviews by Federal agencies. The amendments would further the original intent of the CEQ regulations. That is, reduce paperwork or delays and promote better decisions. It hinted at a consistency. One with the environmental policy envisaged under Section 101 of NEPA.

In 1978, there was a promulgation of these regulations. They were never updated since. Thus, upon conclusion, the update would make them more comprehensible and coherent. CEQ had invited comments on the proposed revision.

The Trump administration and Mary Neumayr branded this as an effort to modernize the environmental review process. Trump announced the proposed rules at the White House. He wanted to regularize what he called an “outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process”. But the response to the same has been otherwise.

Mary Neumayr holds the chair to the CEQ.

What is NEPA?

NEPA stands for the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. President Richard M. Nixon, on January 1, 1970, brought the legislation into force. NEPA is popular as the Magna Carta of the United States Environmental law. The act encourages “productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment”. It promotes efforts which are not damaging to the environment. The act vouches for a “continuing policy” of the U.S. government. It visualizes circumstances where man and nature can co-exist.

The act requires all federal agencies to prepare an “environmental impact statement (EIS)”. The agencies need to do this before any major Federal action is undertaken. Action that could affect the quality of the human environment. Touted as “essentially procedural”, is the mandate. It doesn’t dictate how the agencies should act. Rather, they are only required to disclose the environmental impacts of their actions.

The Overhaul

Trump announced the overhaul so that major projects could speed up. For instance, pipelines and highways. But, the reaction to this announcement has not been very positive. Critics have commented that it could actually put the needs of the poor on the back burner. 

Trump denounced the “mountains of bureaucratic red tape in Washington, D.C.”. Once the regulations streamline, a freeway south of Atlanta would expand, Trump said. He also called it a reclamation of America’s proud heritage as a nation of builders. America is nation that can and will get things done. He further added in complete disregard to the impact on climate change.

These new rules are set to cause a fall in the types and number of projects that can be under review under the NEPA. It will also mitigate the timeline for reviews. In fact, it will decimate the mandate. One that agencies need to consider the cumulative environmental effects of projects. In short, climate change won’t be a determinant in the materialization of a project.

Trump’s agenda of “energy dominance” which the law curtailed could be given a freeway now. Two weeks ago, the environmental reviews side-tracked. This was due to a series of controversial oil and gas pipelines projects. These included the Keystone XL, the Dakota Access and the Atlantic Coast pipelines. These could now gain momentum, “gutting” the regulations. Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council said.

The Aftermath 

NEPA gave a voice to the marginalized communities in America. Those who had been afflicted by pollution from highways, pipelines and chemical plants. The move by the government aims to put those voices to quiet. Trump’s efforts to speed up delayed projects are at the cost of environmental damage. As well as cause an impact to the community.

Agencies will now have to issue EI statements within a stringent 2-year period. This is the half of what has been the 4.5 year time limit. The comments that are invited from the public will now have to be submitted. The topics and the subjects of review under the act will be very limited.

But, several environmental lawyers have declared the new regulations to be illegal. They have said that they will challenge them in the court. Moreover, Joe Biden has promised to keep the frontline and the fence-line communities at the forefront. Joe Bidden is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.


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