Loff: Proposed changes to NEPA will limit environmental protections
Eagle River Watershed Council
The National Environmental Policy Act recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. NEPA is a federal law that promotes the enhancement of the environment and establishes the Council on Environmental Quality. Unfortunately, there isn’t much celebration of the 50 years of resource protection as President Trump just proposed changes to NEPA that would significantly narrow its scope and overall ability to do what it was created to do. The changes are aimed at making it easier and faster to get new roads, mines, pipelines and other projects up and running without the thorough review of potential impacts to the environment that such projects have been subject to in the previous 50 years.
Eagle River Watershed Council often participates in the public comment period for NEPA-regulated projects. This is where the local community, which knows the area in which the project is proposed best, has a voice. The proposed changes to NEPA will largely negate our local voice on issues such as proposed reservoirs, highway expansions and more.
The Watershed Council has concerns regarding several key issues in the proposed rule:
- Simplification of the definition of effects: This change consolidates the definition of effects and removes “references to direct, indirect and cumulative effects” and strikes at the heart of NEPA. NEPA was established to understand the variety, scale and context of effects from a proposed action, and the consolidation of these categories makes it more difficult to understand the full effects. When NEPA was declared law by a bipartisan effort and signed by President Nixon, it was in response to many years of direct, indirect and cumulative effects of harmful impacts on the nation’s water, air and land resources. Analysis of indirect and cumulative effects is critical to understanding the overall impact of every project. The consolidation of these terms in the “simplification” of the definition will weaken the public’s and decision-makers’ understanding of the full array of impacts from proposed federal actions. It will undoubtedly be a challenge to fully grasp how actions may affect or be affected by climate change without these effects made clear and available.
- Major Federal actions: ERWC has strong concerns about the intent and outcome of the proposed addition of two sentences to the definition of “major federal action.” The non-federal agencies always can influence the outcome of an action on federal land because the land belongs to the public, not the project proponent. There is a strong legal precedent that NEPA is required when there is a federal tie, regardless of whether funding is large or small for a project, or through private or local funds. The authors of NEPA were abundantly clear that the impacts on the environment of public lands were of utmost importance, and therefore, the removal of a NEPA analysis requirement for “non-major federal actions” is again, a thinly veiled attempt to reduce the public and agency’s understanding of the scope of impacts from infrastructure projects.
- Page limits and time limits for NEPA reviews: The proposed rule sets page limits (currently nonexistent) for environmental assessments to 75 pages and environmental impact statements to 150 pages and recommends shorter review periods. We agree conceptually with the overall federal efforts in the past five years to streamline NEPA. However, the quality of content and the thoroughness of important analyses will be crippled by these page limits in most cases. Transparency with the public and time for public engagement is one of the key tenants of NEPA, and these changes will undercut any relevant and genuine efforts at the agency level to implement appropriate NEPA streamlining (which federal agencies are already effectively working on, and which we applaud).
In sum, the Watershed Council believes the proposed rule weakens NEPA, reducing the public’s and decision-makers’ understanding of the scope and impact of federal actions. We strongly believe, if passed, that the rule will have devastating impacts on our nation’s waters, lands and air, and we encourage you to speak up and request that the Council on Environmental Quality halt these thinly-veiled attempts to allow major infrastructure projects to proceed without adequate regulation and mitigation.
The comment period is currently open on this proposed rulemaking. You can submit comments until March 10. If you agree with our comments, we welcome you to use any information we shared here in your comments to the Council on Environmental Quality. You can read the full rule for yourself at federalregister.gov.
Holly Loff is the Executive Director for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit http://www.erwc.org.